John Walters testifies at Senate hearing on HB 481

John P. Walters, who served as director of drug control policy for eight years under President George W. Bush, urged New Hampshire lawmakers to vote against legalizing marijuana at a Senate hearing on Tuesday.

CONCORD — The man who served as the nation’s drug czar for eight years under President George W. Bush, and his deputy, headlined a lineup of high-profile experts to speak against marijuana legalization before a Senate committee on Tuesday.

John P. Walters, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2001 to 2009 was joined by Dr. Bertha K. Madras, now director of the Laboratory of Addiction Neurobiology, at Harvard Medical School.

They were recruited by state Sen. Bob Giuda, R-Warren, an aggressive opponent of the marijuana legalization bill now working its way through the legislature, HB 481. The bill has passed the House and is now before the Senate, which is expected to vote on the legislation next week.

Gov. Chris Sununu has promised to veto the bill, which does not appear to have veto-proof support in the House or Senate. That hasn’t stopped opponents like Giuda from pulling out all the stops.

In addition to Walters and Madras, other expert witnesses testifying at Giuda’s invitation included Dr. Karen Randall, an emergency room physician from Pueblo, Co.; Dr. Russell Kamer, medical director for Partners in Safety, White Plains, N.Y.; Will Jones, head of outreach for Smarter About Marijuana, Washington, D.C.; and Tiffany Davis, founder of Moms Against Marijuana Addiction.

“We decided we would try to bring in people who were recognized and prominent masters of science, medicine and public policy to bring attention to the consequences of this bill,” said Giuda.

Walters said he has not testified frequently since departing the White House to become chief operating officer of the Hudson Institute, a public policy think tank in Washington, D.C. With New Hampshire the only New England state that has not legalized marijuana, he felt the trip was worthwhile.

Sen. Harold French, R-Franklin, asked how New Hampshire could hope to enforce its existing laws on marijuana when it is surrounded by other New England states and Canada that have legalized its recreational use among adults.

“Unfortunately, you’re right,” said Walters. “These poisons have been unleashed on much too wide a scale and for far too many people. It’s dangerous and will be a continuing problem, but it’s unsustainable.”

Walters predicted that legalization will be rolled back in some states.

“The question is not whether this is going to continue,” he said. “It will have to be reversed because of the consequences. The question is how many of your citizens and children are going to be safer because you didn’t give in. You’re seeing more questioning of this all the time. We’ve made some terrible mistakes in legalization, but I can tell you people are now aware and frightened of the consequences.”

Madras compared marijuana to opioids and said, “cold hard evidence is being ignored or dismissed by users, believers or those with financial interests.”

“We’ve become a nation awash in opioids and marijuana,” she said. “Although the two drug classes have different adverse consequences, similar strategies were used to convince the public, to convince regulators, physicians, policymakers and medical professionals to dismiss or disregard the harmful effects. There’s egregious neglect and it’s rampant.”

Tuesday’s hearing was the second on the bill before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which heard from other national experts brought in by Giuda at its first hearing in April.

“In recent weeks, New Hampshire seems to have been attracting opponents of cannabis legalization like flies,” said Matt Simon, New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project.

He took issue with the way Walters and others described the experience of Colorado in legalizing cannabis, which they described as a “disaster.”

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” said Simon. “Licensed retailers in Colorado have sold more than $6 billion worth of cannabis to adult consumers since 2014, and the state has collected over $850 million in taxes. And although opponents initially warned that teen use would skyrocket following legalization for adults’ use, it has actually declined.”