Hopes of legalizing marijuana in New Hampshire any time soon figuratively went up in smoke, thanks to voters in this month’s election.
Supporters are left to dream that Gov. Chris Sununu might abruptly end years of opposition and actually lead a campaign to make it legal to buy and use cannabis.
Never-give-up advocates will reintroduce legislation in 2021 from Rep. Carol McGuire, R-Epsom, that would allow adults to legally possess a small amount of pot and grow up to six plants at home.
Patterned after the law Vermont passed in 2018, this would require follow-up legislation to create an in-state retail market for the drug.
But the bill’s fate has already been sealed in the state Senate, and not only because Republicans regained control of the upper chamber.
“It is impossible to put a positive spin on what happened in the Senate,” said Matt Simon, senior legislative analyst with the Marijuana Policy Project.
“I am usually in the business of trying to find the silver lining. There is none. Short of a very popular governor doing a complete 180, it has no chance.
“The Senate literally has become a murderer’s row of prohibitionists.”
What made this election especially painful for supporters was that 2020 was a very successful year for cannabis campaigns elsewhere in the U.S.
Voters in Montana, Arizona, New Jersey and South Dakota legalized possession for adults 21 or older.
The South Dakota vote came over the opposition of GOP Gov. Kristi Noem, who campaigned in New Hampshire for President Donald Trump and is considered a potential 2024 presidential contender.
“Connecticut and New York are teetering on the edge. We believe now that New Jersey has moved, the governors of both those states feel a real sense of urgency for their states to follow suit,” Simon said.
15 states and counting
Fifteen states now allow recreational use of marijuana. And two weeks ago, Mississippi became the 36th state to make medical cannabis legal.
Lawmakers in New Hampshire’s neighboring states have legalized marijuana use, with retail stores open in Massachusetts and Maine.
Last October, Vermont Gov. Phil Scott let become law without his signature a marijuana retail sale law that has retail stores set to open there in January 2023.
Before Election Day, legalization supporters were hard at work trying to produce a veto-proof super-majority in the New Hampshire Legislature that could overcome Sununu’s opposition.
With all the votes counted, they now don’t think a measure could even get through the Senate and onto Sununu’s desk.
The current count, based on past votes and public statements, is 12 elected senators against, 10 in favor, and two undecided.
The two “undecided” senators aren’t seen as leaning yes, either. They are current Senate President Donna Soucy and Sen. Kevin Cavanaugh, both D-Manchester.
In 2019, the pair voted to uphold Sununu’s veto of a bill that would have permitted those using medical marijuana and their caregivers to grow pot.
Sununu spokesman Benjamin Vihstadt said the governor’s position has not changed.
He also pointed out, “Governor Chris Sununu’s administration has been more progressive on the issues surrounding marijuana reform than any other governor in New Hampshire history.”
“After years of inaction by Democrat Governors, Chris Sununu signed common sense decriminalization, expanded access to medical marijuana, and provided a pathway to annul old convictions for marijuana possession.”
As national Republican leaders talk up Sununu as a potential challenger to U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., Simon said this should only harden the governor’s views.
When she was governor, Hassan likewise opposed legalization during her four years in office.
Both Sununu and Hassan have had the support of local police chiefs in past campaigns, in no small part because they took this position.
“In Sununu, he doesn’t need to evolve on this issue. If he’s only thinking about the next election, whatever he’s running for, he’s got no reason to change,” Simon said.
On Nov. 3, voters flipped the Senate from 14-10 Democratic to 14-10 Republican.
Four more against
All four newly elected Republican senators oppose legalization: Gary Daniels of Milford, Kevin Avard of Nashua, Bill Gannon of Sandown and Denise Ricciardi of Bedford.
In 2016, then-Sen. Daniels spoke on the floor against decriminalization.
“We are in a war, and the last thing we need is to tell our citizens that it’s OK to use a little marijuana or any other illegal substance,” Daniels said.
The four defeated Senate Democrats were at least open to the idea.
Sens. Melanie Levesque, D-Brookline, and Jon Morgan, D-Brentwood, were on board. Sens. Shannon Chandley, D-Amherst, and Jeanne Dietsch, D-Peterborough, had not ruled it out.
Voters elected three new Democrats who support legalization — Becky Whitley of Hopkinton, Rebecca Perkins Kwoka of Portsmouth and Suzanne Prentiss of Lebanon — but each replaced a retiring incumbent who also favored legalization.
The state’s police chiefs also oppose legalization. They are backed by former federal law enforcement officials, some medical experts and the New Futures organization.
The Marijuana Policy Project’s Simon stressed this has never been a partisan issue. Independent polls found that almost 70% of likely New Hampshire voters support legalization.
Although Democratic nominee for governor Dan Feltes and many Democrats were on board, Simon said party leaders did not do enough to make legalization a central talking point.
“I didn’t see it on any Democrats’ campaign literature, ads, any messaging at all during the general election,” Simon said. “They did nothing in their campaigns that I saw to motivate these voters.”
Meanwhile, long-standing support for the cause in the House seems intact.
Last spring, the Democratic-led House voted 236-112 in favor of the home cultivation bill being reintroduced in 2021.
The GOP regained control of the House this month as well, but many of these “new” Republicans are libertarian-minded candidates who support legalization.
Simon and allies built a broad coalition in the House, from the American Civil Liberties Union to the conservative Americans for Prosperity.
The House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee studied two other legalization bills over the summer and earlier this month recommended one be passed in some form next year.
“Much study has gone into this and other related bills. We recommend that all these bills be synthesized into a coherent and thoughtful piece of legislation,” said Rep. Beth Rodd, D-Bradford.