NH – An Island In New England

NH Gov Chris Sununu NH - An Island In New England
New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu Photo: Gage Skidmore/Wiki Commons

How long will NH stay “An island in New England” without legal marijuana?
Despite the broad support for changing marijuana law in the Granite State, a bill legalizing the drug has yet to make it to the governor’s desk

It may be the “live free or die” state, but when it comes to getting marijuana, people in New Hampshire are certainly less free than elsewhere in New England.

When cannabis was allowed for recreational use in Rhode Island this May, New Hampshire was left as the only state in the region that has yet to legalize the drug. That’s despite the fact that about three quarters of state residents support legalization, according to a recent poll.

Lawmakers don’t share that same broad enthusiasm for legalization, from the State House to the governor’s office, where recent attempts to change marijuana law have died.

Two bills legalizing the possession of cannabis — one proposing sales to adults through liquor stores — were rejected by the Senate in April, despite being approved by the House. In 2019, Gov. Chris Sununu vetoed a bill that would have allowed residents to home-grow their own cannabis plants.

But Sununu’s stance has wavered in recent months. Now he, like plenty of other people in New Hampshire, seems to think it’s a matter of time for the law to change.

“I think it’s going to ultimately happen in New Hampshire,” he told the New England Council in March. “It could be inevitable.”

Lawmakers have already decriminalized small amounts of marijuana in New Hampshire and annulled the records of those locked up for marijuana possession. So what will it take for the state to join its neighbors and make it fully legal? It may just be a matter of figuring out how to do it.

Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, a Democrat from Manchester, voted against the recent bill, saying that using publicly owned liquor stores to administer marijuana is “crude.”

“If marijuana is to be legalized, we’ve got to come up with a much better methodology of handling it,” he said. The bill “couldn’t have been administered. As a result, you would’ve had chaos.”

If that can be worked out, Sununu has signaled he’d be open to signing the law — he reiterated that to NBC10 Boston this week. Until then, NH residents will have to keep crossing the border to buy marijuana.

Public perception vs. legislative action
There’s broad public support for marijuana legalization in the Granite State, and that’s been true for years.

University of New Hampshire political science professor Andrew E. Smith, who’s been polling support for legalization, found in 2013, when the first states in the U.S. were passing laws legalizing marijuana, that 49% of people in New Hampshire supported a similar law, with 45% opposed.

Support has risen since, reaching 74% in a UNH poll Smith helped conduct this February. Only 15% of respondents were opposed; the rest were neutral.

“My sense is it will eventually get passed,” Smith said.

While support for marijuana legalization has historically come from Democrats and young people, Smith’s February poll shows more than two thirds of independents and slightly over half of Republicans in New Hampshire were in favor of the bill legalizing marijuana sales in state-run liquor stores that was rejected by Senate in April.

In fact, Smith said that more than half of Republicans have backed legalization since 2017. And two out of three seniors now support it.

“Unfortunately, in this case the senators are out of step with their constituencies,” said Jax James, state policy manager of NORML, an organization that advocates for the reform of marijuana laws. “We see this not just with cannabis policy but with other policies, where perhaps the legislators’ personal opinions get in the way of representing the people of their district.”

NH – An island in New England
With cannabis now legal in 18 states and Washington, D.C., Republicans — usually the party that opposes legalization — are gaining “a more realistic understanding of the risks and benefits of cannabis,” said Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies at the Marijuana Policy Project.

“If you look at conservative principles of small government and individual liberty, legalizing cannabis is right in line with that belief system,” she said.

Sununu may be coming around to a similar position. Asked this week for his stance on legalization, Sununu reiterated a statement he’s been giving news outlets this year.

“I have been more progressive on the issues surrounding marijuana reform than any other Governor in New Hampshire history. After years of inaction by Democrat governors, I signed commonsense decriminalization, expanded access to medical marijuana, and provided a pathway to annul old convictions for marijuana possession,” he said in an email.

He indicated he’s open to considering legalizing marijuana as well, though he didn’t go so far as to say he supported it.

“The legislature has never sent a legalization bill to my desk – it has failed in the Senate repeatedly, in both Republican-held years and Democrat-held years,” Sununu said. “Should they reach consensus and compromise, then I would review any such legislation and determine whether it is in the best interests of New Hampshire’s citizens.”

Though the House has approved multiple legalization bills, these efforts have failed in the Senate repeatedly.

After easily passing through the House in a 241-113 vote, the most recent bill that would have legalized possession and use of marijuana for adults was rejected by the Senate 15-9.

“New Hampshire has become an island in New England with our overly burdensome regulations of cannabis that are out of sync with what the scientific health and social data says, and most importantly, with what New Hampshire voters want,” Sen. Becky Whitley, D-Concord, told colleagues before the Senate vote.

It did not sway the majority of senators, including D’Alessandro, who concluded the legalization of cannabis in surrounding states should not dictate legislation in New Hampshire.

“It’s like jumping off the bridge,” he told NBC10 Boston. “Just because everybody’s jumping off the bridge, does that mean you have to jump off the bridge?”

For now, the status quo remains in New Hampshire. But the Senate’s resistance to cannabis doesn’t mean residents aren’t finding ways to get their hands on it.

The View From Outside NH
Brendan McKee has plenty of loyal cannabis customers in New Hampshire, he says. They just don’t shop there.

The owner of Silver Therapeutics, a dispensary with locations in Maine and Massachusetts near the New Hampshire border, says he’s seen firsthand the effect of the marijuana policies in neighboring states on New Hampshire residents, who often travel hours and cross state lines in order to purchase cannabis.

“It doesn’t add up, it doesn’t compute,” McKee said. “So many people benefit from this plant, and it’s heartbreaking that folks have to drive an hour, two hours, even three hours-plus in order to access it.”

But he shares a view with others that New Hampshire can benefit from the fact that it’s surrounded by examples of how to legalize. Lawmakers can “cherry pick what’s working and what’s not,” McKee said.

It took years for Massachusetts to ramp up the marijuana business after it was legalized in 2016, causing frustration during the rollout. But six years later, business is booming.

Just two years after the first adult-use pot shops on the East Coast opened for business in 2018, marijuana sales in Massachusetts surpassed $1 billion, then $2 billion less than a year after that, according to the state’s Cannabis Control Commission.

Most residents approve of the state’s implementation — a poll released last year by UMass Amherst found that only 13% of Massachusetts residents thought the legalization of marijuana negatively impacted the state. Sixty-one percent said its effect was positive and 25% of voters were neutral.

“When Massachusetts started to launch, they had a 32-person board, [with] folks from all over the country, particularly folks from legal states that could provide prospective input,” McKee noted.

He praised the state for its efforts to gain a national perspective on the issue, and encouraged New Hampshire to do the same.

Mainers faced an even longer delay until the start of recreational marijuana sales, as the state legalized the drug for non-medical use in 2016 but did not set up the retail industry until October 2020. But, like Massachusetts, business quickly ramped up, and cannabis is now Maine’s most valuable agricultural product in sales.

Understanding opponents’ objections to legalization
Several lawmakers don’t see marijuana as a business opportunity, but a danger. Their objections to marijuana have often centered on the health risks of the drug and how it may connect to the opioid crisis.

While most of America has been seeing an increase in opioid-related deaths, New Hampshire’s rate has fallen faster than any other state’s, a trend Sununu has previously pointed to when saying it wasn’t yet time to legalize cannabis.

New Hampshire’s rate of drug overdose deaths was the only one in the country that saw a decrease of more than 5% in 2020, the most recent year available, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That year, Massachusetts had a 5% increase in drug overdose deaths, still among the smallest in the nation, while Vermont saw an increase of over 38%, putting it in the bottom third of the list.

While Sununu has claimed New Hampshire’s impressive downward trend is correlated with its continued prohibition of marijuana, others argue that the decline in deaths — mostly from opioids like heroin — has nothing to do with cannabis legalization.

“People are not dying from just using cannabis,” said James. “Conflating other illicit drugs with the cannabis plant is not only disingenuous but not factual at all.”‘

Another worry that state leaders cite around marijuana is the fear that legalization will bring increased teen use, and that the rising levels of THC — the main psychoactive component of cannabis — in marijuana products may pose a risk to those who do not have fully formed brains yet.

“If you’re under [25], then we want you to know what all the risk factors are, because they could in fact impact you for a very long time,” said state Rep. Sue Mullen, of Bedford, in an April virtual forum for the advocacy group New Futures.

But cannabis has been shown to be beneficial in some cases. Medical marijuana was legalized in New Hampshire in 2013, and can provide treatment to patients with a number of conditions, including Alzheimer’s disease and cancer. Although Sununu has voiced concerns on the dangers of marijuana related to the opioid crisis, last year he signed off on a bill that added opioid use disorder to the list of conditions that qualify for medical cannabis.

O’Keefe supports loosening medical marijuana laws even further. Many patients “are just using cannabis after surgery, for pain, or for sleeping, and they want to have that option,” she said.

The hazy future of cannabis law in NH
It’s unclear if the issue of marijuana will be a game changer at the polls. But considering the widespread support from New Hampshire residents, and the state’s new reputation as “an island in New England” when it comes to the drug, some lawmakers are claiming it may be more important now than ever.

“New Hampshire voters want us to make this change,” Whitley declared at the Senate session in April. “And it has become the time to do so.”

Sununu has announced he will run for reelection this fall, and if he wins he will serve a fourth term as state governor. He hasn’t announced if he’s for or against marijuana legalization, but his likely opponent in the general election has.

State Sen. Tom Sherman, a doctor who represents Hampton, voted to pass the legalization bill in April, and the Democrat has said he’d support legalizing cannabis to prevent it from being laced with dangerous and addictive drugs.

If he were to win in November, New Hampshire would likely be a step closer to being a little greener.