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Bills Would Lessen Penalties For Marijuana

Herb Fellow

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Two bills before state lawmakers aim to loosen marijuana penalties, lessening the punishments for possessing smaller amounts of the drug or doing away with any punishment altogether.

"None of the doom and gloom scenarios this bill's opponents may try to scare people with have ever come to pass following decriminalization," said Matt Simon, executive director of the New Hampshire Coalition for Common Sense Marijuana Policy, regarding a proposal to lessen criminal punishments for marijuana possession. "It's time to reduce marijuana penalties in New Hampshire."

Easing marijuana punishments has become a perennial cause at the State House, with some lawmakers making numerous attempts to legalize the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes and diminish the legal consequences of possession. Last year, an effort to remove criminal penalties for marijuana possession and use failed.

Yesterday, backers of relaxed marijuana restrictions showed they're taking a different tack. Rather than legalize marijuana possession outright, one of the two bills before a House committee yesterday would make the penalty for possessing less than 1.25 ounces of marijuana a violation, rather than a misdemeanor. The violation could bring a fine of no more than $200.

The bill's supporters cast the proposal as a way to keep marijuana possession charges from blocking an individual's educational and vocational opportunities, and they distinguished marijuana from other forms of illegal drugs.

Those convicted of marijuana possession can "become ineligible for financial aid for college, cannot enlist in the armed services and can even lose eligibility for employment," Rep. Jeffrey Fontas, a Nashua Democrat and the bill's sponsor, said at a press conference before yesterday's public hearing. "This is a bill about protecting the opportunity for young people to grow up and be productive, fulfilling citizens in their communities."

Another bill - sponsored by Rep. Charles Weed, a Keene Democrat - would permit the possession of up to a quarter of an ounce of marijuana for medical or personal use. Weed also sponsored last year's proposal to legalize marijuana use and sales, a bill that went beyond what other states allows.

A subgroup of the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee will study the proposals.

But if yesterday's public hearing on reducing the penalties for marijuana possession drew more supporters than opponents, several law enforcement officials lined up against the proposed changes. The attorney general's office threw its weight against the measure. Karin Eckel, an attorney at the state Department of Justice, said that marijuana possession already carries a lesser penalty than possession of other illegal drugs. And Eckel deemed "troublesome" a portion of the bill that appears to eliminate the penalty for selling up to 1.25 ounces of marijuana.

And Peter Morency, president of the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police, described the issue in terms of crime, pointing to the high levels of crime that he said were drug-and-alcohol related. "We look at this as another step toward legitimizing or legalizing marijuana," Morency said.

But Bradley Jardis, who says he is a New Hampshire police officer and member of the group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (which promotes an end to drug prohibition), countered that argument, saying that alcohol users pose far more crime problems than marijuana users.

"In my time in law enforcement, I've been punched, kicked, choked, thrown on the ground, jumped on on the ground by people who drink alcohol," said Jardis, who declined to say where in New Hampshire he worked as an officer. "This has never happened, in my experience, with someone who just smoked marijuana.

"Criminalizing our kids, turning 16-year-olds into criminals for using a drug that in my opinion is far less dangerous than alcohol, which does nothing but ruin their lives," Jardis added.

Currently, possession of smaller amounts of marijuana is a misdemeanor. Individuals convicted of such possession can receive up to one year in prison and a $2,000 fine. Selling or cultivating marijuana carries far tougher penalties.

State lawmakers throughout the nation have been considering changes to marijuana penalties in recent years. Marijuana can be used for some medicinal purposes in 11 states, according to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

New Hampshire lawmakers last year rejected a proposal to allow people with debilitating illnesses to use marijuana for health purposes.

It's unclear how the marijuana-related proposals will fare in the Legislature.

But Simon is optimistic about the fate of the bill to make possession of smaller amounts of marijuana a violation, rather than a misdemeanor.

"Last year we supported a bill that was far more radical and we discussed what sort of things they would support," Simon said. "This is within the parameters of that."

Source: The Concord Monitor
Copyright: 2008, The Concord Monitor
Contact: Sarah Liebowitz, Monitor staff
Website: Concord Monitor - Bills would lessen penalties for marijuana
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