CONCORD — It’s the end of the road for efforts to legalize recreational marijuana in New Hampshire, at least for the 2019 legislative session.
The Senate is expected to vote this week to keep the legalization bill, HB 481, in committee for the rest of this year, with plans to try again in 2020.
“We’re going to hear it again in January, but our thinking was we heard a lot of testimony from people who had concerns, and we wanted to make sure those were addressed to the best of our ability,” said state Sen. Melanie Levesque, D-Nashua, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The committee voted 5-0 last week to recommend that the bill be “re-referred,” and the full Senate is expected to endorse that recommendation on Thursday.
The issues that merit further study, according to Levesque, include measures to prevent marketing to children and requirements for tamper-proof packaging.
“There should be an advocate who is looking out for children’s needs to make sure there is no advertising directed toward them,” she said.
The Senate also wants further clarification on the process cities and towns can use to prevent retail cannabis sales or grow operations within their boundaries.
“There are issues about municipalities voting on whether they can have an establishment, clarification about when that happens,” said Levesque. “My thought was to decide if you are going to have it or not, you would have to do it at town meeting.”
Lawmakers also plan to examine ways to preserve opportunities for New Hampshire-based entrepreneurs in cannabis manufacturing and retail sales, Levesque said.
The Union Leader reported earlier this month that a Canadian cannabis corporation, with an infusion of cash from one of the world’s largest alcohol distributors, is making a bid for the company that runs New Hampshire’s medical marijuana dispensary in Merrimack.
“The bill does state that it will be run by New Hampshire residents for at least three years, and I would like to see that longer and understand a little bit more about how that would work,” said Levesque.
Beyond those issues, there’s a public awareness campaign that needs to be waged, in which legalization opponents have outdone supporters in recent months.
“There is a lot more education on the bill that needs to be done by our caucus and by others in the public,” said Levesque.
Prospects for the bill looked weak from the first vote in the Democratically controlled legislature. Although legalization was part of the N.H. Democratic Party platform going into the 2018 election (“We believe that marijuana should be legalized, taxed, and regulated”), many Democrats are apparently opposed.
The House voted 209-147 to pass the bill in February after review by the Criminal Justice Committee, and 200-163 in April after review by Ways and Means. The first time, 51 Democrats voted against the bill, growing to 59 “no” votes from Democrats on the second try.
With so many Democrats voting “no,” there was no way the House could hope to override a promised veto from Gov. Chris Sununu, so the bill’s fortunes were preordained even before it got to the Senate.
“I still think it’s a good bill,” said Levesque. “It’s very comprehensive, but as with anything, there are still a lot of questions. We only had it for a short period of time. I’m a supporter of legalization, but I’m also an elected official tasked with listening to people. They have concerns. I just want them addressed.”
Kate Frey, vice president of advocacy for the public health non-profit New Futures, suggested that the large turnout at House and Senate public hearings by legalization opponents had an effect.
“We are pleased that the Senate Judiciary Committee listened to the dozens of New Hampshire residents who testified in opposition to this harmful legislation,” she said. “HB 481 proposed an irresponsible marijuana commercialization model that does not have the health and well-being of our families and our communities in mind.”
New Hampshire joins the ranks of other states like New York and New Jersey, where legalization efforts that appeared to have momentum have stalled.
Vermont has legalized marijuana for personal use, but not commercial sales. A Senate-passed bill to create a taxed and regulated market for the sale of cannabis products has stalled in the Vermont House, where the Ways and Means Committee has voted to hold on to the bill until next year.
“We made great progress this year,” said Matt Simon, New England Political Director for the Marijuana Policy Project, pointing out that 2019 marks the first time a legalization bill ever passed House committees and advanced to the Senate in New Hampshire.
Sununu’s veto threat proved to be an insurmountable obstacle, according to Simon. Recreational use of cannabis is legal in 10 states, but in each case the change came about through public referendum, which is not an option in New Hampshire.
“It’s frustrating that the obstructionists have succeeded in delaying the inevitable for yet another session, but we will continue working to help legislators achieve consensus on a responsible set of cannabis policies for New Hampshire,” Simon said.
“That is proving to be a slower and in many ways more difficult process than putting legalization on the ballot and asking voters to pass it, but we know we are on the right track.”