CONCORD — As legislation to legalize recreational marijuana in the Granite State moves toward its first public hearing on Tuesday, both sides in the debate are mobilizing their supporters.
The Governor’s Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse has taken a formal vote to oppose the bill at the request of Gov. Chris Sununu, although some members abstained.
A coalition of law enforcement agencies, health care professionals and public health advocacy groups held a news conference at the State House on Thursday to outline their opposition.
And at noon on Tuesday, an hour before the start of a 1 p.m. public hearing scheduled for Representatives’ Hall, the bill’s sponsor will present a diverse group of stakeholders, including law enforcement.
“The wide array of forces that are going to be speaking in support will get people’s attention,” said Democratic Rep. Renny Cushing of Hampton on Friday.
Cushing’s bill lays out protocols for regulation, taxation, personal and commercial cultivation, retail sales, local control and distribution of the revenue from legal marijuana —all under the jurisdiction of a Cannabis Control Commission.
The legal possession limit would be one ounce in plant form, five grams of hashish or six cannabis plants, and consumption would be prohibited by anyone in a moving vehicle or public place.
If the bill becomes law, the control commission will be required to start processing applications for retail locations by September 2020, and issue decisions within 90 days. That means the earliest that pot shops could open in the Granite State would be January 2021.
Cities and towns will be authorized to enact ordinances prohibiting or restricting the number of cannabis operations, controlling the location, size and hours of operation.
Only 33 percent of the proceeds from pot sales would go to the state general fund. The rest would be shared by health and human services agencies for research and education, law enforcement and public safety agencies, and municipalities that host retail or cultivation sites.
The promise of money for education, research and municipal government doesn’t come close to offsetting the downside of legalization, according to Patrick Tufts, chair of the Governor’s Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse.
“The commission’s position is that legalizing a potentially addictive drug, in the middle of an addiction crisis, is imprudent and would have a negative impact on public health,” he said.
Tufts argued that legalization and retail sales will lower the perception of harm, particularly among young people, which will increase the likelihood of use.
“People with marijuana use disorders are already using significant treatment program resources so that legalizing this potentially addictive drug will only increase demand on our already strained treatment programs,” he said, “and there is a lack of favorable, or even neutral, evidence, on the harm or benefit from states who have legalized on the public health impact.”
Conflicts with federal law
The fact that the other five New England states and Canada have legalized recreational use and commercial sale is often cited by proponents of the bill.
“There’s always been resistance to changing our criminal justice policies concerning marijuana and so there’s nothing new there,” says Cushing.
“But there is a broad array of public support, including members of the medical community, law enforcement and business. You’ll hear from them on Tuesday.”
Center Harbor Police Chief Mark Chase, president of the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police, said his organization opposes the bill for a variety of reasons, including what he called a lack of proper oversight and conflicts with federal law.
“It’s troubling during an opioid epidemic, with local, state and federal law enforcement working together to address this crisis, that this proposed legislation has a provision barring local law enforcement from expending resources or providing information to any federal law enforcement or prosecuting entity regarding possession of marijuana that would be legal under state law,”” Chase said.
“We have the opportunity to learn from the errors other states are making now and take our time to do things the right way.”
The bill will have a long and winding road through the legislature, with no final votes likely until late in the session. Committees in the House and Senate will hear testimony, in addition to floor debates in both chambers in the weeks ahead.
The issue will be thoroughly vetted before any bill lands on Sununu’s desk, where it faces a certain veto. The votes could be there for an override, but that’s far from certain. Cushing remains optimistic, even as Sununu leads opposition to what he calls “Big Tobacco 2.0.”
“The prohibition of marijuana was a failed experiment, just like the prohibition of alcohol, and the only ones who benefited from it were members of organized crime,” said Cushing.
“We need to approach marijuana not as a criminal justice matter, as we’ve been doing for eight decades, but as a matter of public health.”