Senate panel rejects expanding medical marijuana

Cannabis plants are shown at Sanctuary ATC, a medical marijuana growing facility in Rochester.

CONCORD — Both branches in the Democratically led Legislature have little appetite for bills expanding marijuana use as two Senate panels issued negative recommendations on separate bills Tuesday.

The Senate Judiciary Committee voted unanimously to recommend the full Senate ship off to interim study a House-approved bill (HB 481) that would have legalized the sale of marijuana to those 21 and older and imposed a retail tax of 9 percent.

Procedurally, the move is a form of polite death.

If the Senate approves the recommendation in 2020, the entire issue would likely have to start all over as a new bill the following year.

State Sen. Harold French, R-Franklin, said this was the prudent course.

“I think it is wise to hold it over. I don’t think the state is ready for legalization at this time,” French said. “We don’t know what the feds are going to do on this issue either.”

Sen. Martha Hennessey, D-Hanover, the committee chairman, said the committee members received a lot of emails about this measure.

“I believe New Hampshire may not be ready, but this bill had too many things that left us needing answers and left too many people concerned,” Hennessey said.

Matt Simon, New England political director of the Marijuana Policy Project, said his group wasn’t surprised by this decision.

“It’s unfortunate that the Senate remains so far out of touch with public sentiment on cannabis policy,” Simon said after the vote.

“New Hampshire does not benefit in any way from remaining an island of prohibition. Granite Staters overwhelmingly recognize that cannabis is less harmful than alcohol, and they’re ready to see the state begin treating it that way. Advocates will refocus their efforts in support of new legislation in 2020.”

The leader of an organization opposed to pot legalization, Smart Approaches to Marijuana Action, praised the committee's decision.

“The defeat of this bill continues the trend of the New Hampshire Legislature bucking Big Marijuana and its addiction industry investors. For the second year in a row, New Hampshire has dealt a significant blow to the marijuana industry in defeating its efforts to expand to the Granite State," SAM President Kevin Sabet said in a statement.

“With new research highlighting marijuana’s connection to psychosis, numerous studies detailing how marijuana legalization may be exacerbating the opioid epidemic, and the ongoing marijuana vaping crisis responsible for at least fifty deaths, there is no better time than now to slam the door on the pot industry."

Marijuana sales are legal in Massachusetts, Maine and Vermont.

Last Sunday, Michigan became the 10th state to legalize recreational sale of marijuana.

Illinois will follow suit and allow retail sale of marijuana starting on New Year’s Day.

State health officials estimate as written the bill the New Hampshire Senate panel acted on would raise for the state $14 million in profit in the first year and $32 million in the second.

Earlier Tuesday, the Senate Health and Human Services Committee voted, 3-1, to recommend killing a second bill (SB 175) that would dramatically expand the number of patients who could receive medical marijuana.

Currently only those with qualifying conditions such as cancer, AIDS and muscular dystrophy may receive medical marijuana.

State Sen. John Reagan, R-Deerfield, authored the bill, which would allow the drug to be given for “any condition” if it’s approved by a health care provider.

Michael Holt, the administrator for the state's medical marijuana program, said the Therapeutic Cannabis Medical Oversight Board recommended the Senate kill this measure.

“The board believes the knowledge of the general provider community at this time is insufficient to justify this change,” Holt told the Senate committee.

Sen. Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, was the only member of the committee against killing Reagan’s bill.

The full Senate will take up these recommendations early on during the 2020 legislative session.

The New Hampshire House of Representatives has several times in the past decade endorsed the concept of legalizing marijuana as it did last February on a vote of 209-147.

The House Public Safety and Criminal Justice Committee had narrowly embraced the idea on a vote of 10-9.

But last month the same House committee voted, 19-0, to recommend a second marijuana legalization bill (HB 722) to be sent to interim study.

Voters last November flipped both chambers of the Legislature from Republican to Democratic control.

In recent weeks, House and Senate committees have given unfavorable reviews to many controversial measures lawmakers will take up next year only a few months before incumbents sign up for reelection.

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