WITH MAJORITIES in both the House and Senate, Democrats are expected to pass a marijuana legalization bill early in the upcoming session. That much is fairly clear. What’s not so clear is whether they have the votes in both chambers to override the inevitable veto by Republican Gov. Chris Sununu.
“It’s a pretty hard burden,” says Hampton Democratic State Rep. Renny Cushing, prime sponsor of the legalization bill that’s already been filed. Nonetheless, Cushing is optimistic. He’s pressed this issue for years and believes its time has come.
“It’s a very dynamic time when it comes to cannabis legalization,” he said. “You have governors of Connecticut, New York and New Jersey all supporting legalization, taxation and regulation of cannabis. We’re surrounded by states where adult recreational use of marijuana is allowed, and it seems to me in some ways inevitable that New Hampshire is going to change on this issue.”
If so, it will be over the strenuous opposition of Sununu. He calls legalization of marijuana “Big Tobacco 2.0” and believes it would be foolhardy in the midst of an addiction crisis. He has strong allies in law enforcement and public health groups like New Futures.
Cushing has strong allies as well, including prominent Republicans like Sen. John Reagan of Deerfield in the Senate and state Rep. Carol McGuire of Epsom in the House. Eleven House and Senate members from both parties have signed on to Cushing’s legislation.
The 27-page bill leans heavily on the work of a 17-member commission comprised of various lawmakers and stakeholders that met 26 times in 2018 before issuing its final report in November.
Even though the report made no recommendation on whether cannabis should be legal, its critics said it amounted to a road map for legalization.
“The bill builds on the year and a half of work that was done by the Abrami committee,” said Cushing, alluding to the committee chair, Rep. Patrick Abrami, R-Stratham. “It’s the most comprehensive proposal to make a transition from prohibition to legalization and commercialization of cannabis that’s ever been put before any legislature.”
The opening statement sums up the legislation’s intent: “In the interest of allowing law enforcement to focus on violent and property crimes; generating revenue for education and other public purposes; and individual freedom, the people of the state of New Hampshire find and declare that the use of cannabis should be legal for a person 21 years of age or older and taxed in a manner similar to alcohol.”
The bill lays out protocols for regulation, taxation, personal and commercial cultivation, retail sales, local control and distribution of the revenue — all under the purview 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 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.
A $30 per ounce wholesale tax paid by retailers would generate an estimated $33 million for the state, which could be higher or lower depending on actual sales volume. The bill avoids any retail sales tax, thus sidestepping the legal question of imposing a sales tax in a state that doesn’t have one.
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.
Sununu has appealed to the Governor’s Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention, Treatment and Recovery to join him in organizing opposition. The commission is expected to take up the issue at its Jan. 25 meeting.