NH: Granite State Senators Divided Over Marijuana

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The three state senators representing the Upper Valley in Concord are split over whether New Hampshire should legalize marijuana, signaling uncertainty over the fate of a bill making its way through the Legislature.

State representatives voted, 207-139, on Tuesday to legalize possession of up to three-quarters of an ounce of marijuana and allow people over 21 years of age to cultivate up to three cannabis plants in their homes.

But it’s unclear how the bill will do in the Senate. Republicans are beginning to line up against the legislation as Democrats project optimism about its chances of passing.

“I actually think it might pass. I know there are Republicans who are in favor of it,” state Sen. Martha Hennessey, D-Hanover, said on Wednesday.

However, the Senate’s leadership isn’t so sure and has said the bill might fail.

Hennessey, who admitted her projection might be “a little overly optimistic,” is openly in favor of the bill.

Passage is long overdue, she said, and would alleviate problems in both the criminal justice and medical systems.

The region’s two Republican senators both plan on opposing the legislation, though.

Sen. Ruth Ward, who represents the Newport area, said she views marijuana as a “gateway drug,” leading people to use harder substances and deepening addiction. She also worried the drug could lead to more deadly accidents on New Hampshire roads.

“As far as I’m concerned, (legalization) is not a good thing to do,” said Ward, a Stoddard resident.

Sen. Bob Giuda, R-Warren, also worried the bill would prevent economic growth, with passage dissuading businesses from moving to the Granite State and creating difficulty for workers who might be required to complete drug tests.

“Jobs are what is going to grow the economy. Pot is not,” said Giuda, who represents the Haverhill area.

Senate leaders are warning a full vote might fail.

Senate Minority Leader Jeff Woodburn said he’s not optimistic the bill will pass, but said he does see it as part of a longer drive to reform marijuana.

The Legislature voted in 2013 to create New Hampshire’s medical marijuana laws and last year decriminalized certain amounts of the drug, he said.

“I think there is a slow movement toward recognizing the reality of what’s going on around us in New Hampshire,” said Woodburn, who represents the North Country, adding neighboring states are moving quickly to legalize the drug.

Both Massachusetts and Maine have legalized marijuana, with the first pot shops expected to open in the Bay State this year. The Vermont Senate also approved a legalization bill on Wednesday that, if signed, will to go into effect on July 1.

Even if the Senate did pass a legalization bill, Republican Gov. Chris Sununu has indicated he wouldn’t sign it.

“My administration has supported common-sense reforms to decriminalize marijuana use and expand availability of medical marijuana,” he said in a statement on Tuesday. “The reality remains that New Hampshire is in the midst of a drug crisis, and now is not the time for recreational legalization.”

Senate President Chuck Morse reiterated that stance on Wednesday, saying marijuana is a gateway drug that is detrimental to fighting the opioid epidemic.

Morse declined to predict how the Senate might vote, but said the body has signaled opposition to past efforts, including a push to legalize marijuana in 2014.

Among Upper Valley legislators, both support and opposition for the legalization effort was largely bipartisan in the House.

Claremont’s delegation was split on the measure. Republicans John O’Connor and Francis Gauthier supported the bill, while Democrats Raymond Gagnon and John Cloutier opposed it.

Three of Hanover’s four-member delegation also opposed the bill.

Reps. Patricia Higgins, Mary Jane Mulligan and Sharon Nordgren voted against the measure, while Polly Campion was in favor.

Campion said she was conflicted leading up to Tuesday’s vote, largely because of the potential impacts of marijuana on lung cancer rates.

She was convinced, however, by evidence showing marijuana isn’t a gateway drug and could be an effective alternative to opioids.

“Prohibition has not proven to work,” said Campion, a registered nurse. “We tried it with alcohol. It was unsuccessful.”

Mulligan said her vote was primarily influenced by area educators, who contacted her worrying the drug would get into minors’ hands.

The bill would only make marijuana possession legal for those 21 and over, she said, but there was too little in the legislation to protect New Hampshire’s school-age population.

“I just listened to educator constituents, teachers and guidance councilors,” said Mulligan, a substitute teacher. “I didn’t feel comfortable supporting legalization.”

Meanwhile, O’Connor, the Claremont Republican, said the bill would prevent the Granite State from becoming the “hole in the doughnut” of New England, referencing laws in Massachusetts and Maine that legalize marijuana.

Neighboring states soon will be making money off the drug while New Hampshire risks being left out, he said.

“We need a new form of tax revenue,” said O’Connor, a retired New York City police officer, adding he would like to see additional funds devoted to education and opioid treatment. “Here’s an opportunity to bring in new tax revenue.”

It’s not clear how much revenue, if any, the House bill would contribute to state coffers, after provisions that would have created a regulatory system to sell and tax marijuana were stripped from the legislation.

A fiscal note attached to an earlier version of the bill predicted the state would make between $42 million and $52.5 million through taxation.

That original bill earmarked 70 percent of those earnings for the state’s general fund, with the remaining 30 percent to go into New Hampshire’s alcohol abuse prevention and treatment fund.

O’Connor attributed Republicans’ mixed reception to the bill as a sign of fracturing in the party, adding there are “parties within the party.”

He said he is optimistic that legalization will someday be passed, though, saying Tuesday’s vote was part of a larger move toward reform.

The legislation next goes before the House Ways and Means Committee, where a hearing has been scheduled for Feb. 1 in Concord.