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Lawmakers Weigh Easing Rules on Pot

PFlynn

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"Peaceful adults in possession of small amounts of marijuana do not harm others, but they do occupy our police, clog up our court system and take up space in our jails," Van Wickler told the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. Two Nashua legislators are seeking to turn possession of up to 1.25 ounces of pot from a criminal offense into a $200 violation.

Currently, possession in any amount is a misdemeanor crime that can mean up to a year in jail or fines up to $2,500. In most cases, it's a fine of several hundred dollars on the first offense.

"Mistakes early in life, like a possession charge, can be devastating to the futures of our young people," said bill co-sponsor Rep. Jeffery Fontas, D-Nashua, who turned 21 a week ago.

"Not only can a possession charge be discouraging at the time of arrest and especially distressing to the relationship between parents and children, but it can also reappear later in life, causing consequences often invisible to the public."

The measure (HB 1623) does not change motor vehicle laws that consider driving while under the influence of any illegal drug a misdemeanor crime with license suspension for at least 60 days.

"Our DWI statute should be guided by the safety of motorists," said the bill's other sponsor, Rep. Andrew Edwards, D-Nashua, also 21.

But New Hampshire Police Chiefs Association President Peter Morency said the state should not condone marijuana use by ending any criminal sanction.

"Every drug dealer I've always talked to says it all started with the first joint," said Morency, the Berlin police chief who spent more than a decade working undercover.

"Don't do this."

Attorney General Kelly Ayotte opposed the measure and Assistant Attorney General Karin Eckel said the bill as written would also decriminalize the sale of up to 1.25 ounces of marijuana.

"Some time ago, this Legislature chose to distinguish between possession and sale of this drug, and this would change that," Eckel warned.

If adopted, New Hampshire would become the 13th state to repeal criminalization of marijuana possession, starting with Oregon in 1973 and most recently Nevada, which passed its law in 2001.

Other states that consider possession of smaller amounts of marijuana a violation are: Alaska, California, Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina and Ohio.

Advocates chose the 1.25-ounce threshold because it mirrors Maine's law, which has been on the books since the late 1970s, according to Matthew Simon, executive director of the New Hampshire Coalition for Common Sense Marijuana Policy.

Bradley Jardis, of Hooksett, is a police officer in Rockingham County who supports the measure and considers the government's four-decade war on drugs an abject failure.

"There's a financial incentive for some from law enforcement to oppose this bill as their very own job is financed by this war that can't be won," Jardis said.

Supporters said because it's a crime, a single drug arrest can lead to the loss of a college scholarship, the ability to serve in the military, subsidized housing, federal welfare like food stamps and even the right to vote.

"It is a sensible, mild transition from our current policy that could reallocate state and local law enforcement resources more efficiently and could also very well end up preserving the futures of countless young people," Fontas added.

The group is seeking to learn by experience, bouncing back from a failed bill (HB 92) last year that decriminalized marijuana completely.

"We know it's not feasible to make marijuana legal, but this is a sensible solution to reduce penalties so casual users in their own home aren't looking at their careers being ruined by a drug offense," Simon said.

The measure still faces an uphill battle. Last spring, the House came within nine votes of voting to make it legal to possess marijuana for a "medically debilitating" condition.

Earlier Tuesday, Rep. Chuck Weed, D-Keene, argued for his measure (HB 1567) to make up it legal to have up to a quarter ounce of marijuana for pleasure or to treat pain.



Source: Telegraph,The (Nashua,NH)
Copyright: 2008 Telegragh Publishing Company
Contact: letters@nashuatelegraph.com
Website: Nashuatelegraph.com: Frontpage : News and Classifieds from Southern New Hampshire
 
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