Panel rejects legalizing pot, chair working on own plan

A House panel recommended setting aside bills to legalize recreational use of marijuana or to permit residents to grow their own but its chairman said he's working on a new bill on the topic for the 2022 session. Here, legalizing marijuana supporters endorsed the campaign at an earlier press conference.

CONCORD — A House panel on Wednesday rejected leftover bills from the 2021 session that would legalize the sale of marijuana or permit homeowners to grow their own.

But the chairman of the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee said he’s working on his own bill for 2022 that, on a limited basis, would allow for legal possession and use of marijuana.

State Rep. Daryl Abbas, R-Salem, said the details of his measure remain to be worked out, but said it would include a ban on smoking marijuana while driving that, upon conviction, could result in the loss of license.

This would make it much easier for law enforcement to police since, unlike alcohol, there is no on-the-scene blood content test for drugged driving, he said.

The measure should also include a stiff fine or other sanction to discourage the public consumption of marijuana, which many families find offensive, Abbas said.

“Fortunately, as we put this together, we can make sure we don’t make the same mistakes that other states have made,” Abbas said. “My goal is to create something that is enforceable, doesn’t create new or higher taxes and can create for a sustainable free market.”

The House of Representatives, under both Republican and Democratic control, on numerous occasions has passed “home grown” legislation to let adults grow their own marijuana plants for personal use.

In 2019 and 2020, the Democratically-led House approved bills to legalize the recreational sale of marijuana.

But all these measures have died in the state Senate after governors from both political parties have expressed opposition to making cannabis use legal beyond that of patients with qualifying chronic medical conditions.

Not looking to make ‘political point’

Last spring, Abbas led the debate against legalization bills on behalf of the House GOP leadership.

“I’m not interested in making a political point, and I freely acknowledge that whatever we come up with, many will support it and others will not. I’d like to see if it’s possible to put something together that’s really a workable New Hampshire solution,” he added.

Largely along partisan lines, the House voted Wednesday to recommend interim study for three bills to legalize and tax cannabis (HB 237), to permit people to possess up to an ounce and cultivate their own plants at home (HB 629), and to adjust the fines for those who possess small amounts of the drug (HB 526).

The motion is a polite way to kill the bill, because once the House adopts it, all that legislation would have to start all over again as a new bill in 2023.

Abbas said the legalization bill would create a 5% wholesale and 9% retail tax that he considered a new sales tax and wouldn’t support.

“We don’t need to create new huge taxes. Any business that sets up in this market will pay business profits, business enterprise, licensing fees, all kinds of revenue that will go to the state and local communities,” Abbas said.

“If you create a big sales tax, all you do is motivate an even bigger black market.”

Rep. Casey Conley, D-Dover, had come to Wednesday’s meeting armed with detailed amendments to keep these bills alive. He decided not to offer them once it was clear there wasn’t bipartisan support.

“I still believe home grow is such a New Hampshire solution because it supports personal liberty and respects privacy,” Conley said after the votes.

“I’m glad to hear the chairman is working on his own solution and I’m looking forward to seeing it.”