Cannabis legalization bill shaped in part by Sununu has momentum – and critics

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By ETHAN DEWITT

New Hampshire Bulletin

Published: 02-27-2024 12:21 PM

New Hampshire’s latest cannabis legalization effort is moving toward familiar territory: approved by the House but with uncertain chances in the Senate. 

That crossover has historically been perilous; the Senate has consistently voted down cannabis legalization efforts. This time, supporters feel that they may have critical momentum, after Gov. Chris Sununu said for the first time last May that he would be open to signing a bill that followed certain conditions.

But the latest version of the bill – which uses a model that would authorize 15 retail locations run by the state’s Liquor Commission – has also sparked criticism from some who support legalization but want a less-regulated model, complicating its potential passage. 

“That is not a free market, nor is that a good way to legalize,” said Rep. Jonah Wheeler, a first-term Peterborough Democrat, speaking on the House floor Thursday.

This year’s legislation, House Bill 1633, would broadly legalize cannabis, allowing anyone 21 and older to possess and consume it. It would also require that anyone seeking to legally buy it in New Hampshire to do so at one of 15 locations authorized and franchised by the state Liquor Commission, which would control how it is tested and marketed. Under that model – the first of its kind to be proposed by a state – 10 percent of sales would go toward the state.

The bill was voted “ought to pass” by the House, 263-116, on Thursday, and heads next to the House Finance Committee. It will go to a final House vote next month and will continue on to the Senate if approved. 

In large part, the House’s current approach is designed around Sununu’s  specifications. Back in May, the governor said he could support a legalization option, but only if sales were limited and controlled by the state and if the priority was safety and not profit. 

“I am supportive of legalizing marijuana in the right way  –  with this Legislature  –  rather than risk a poorly thought out framework that inevitably could pass under future governors or legislatures,” Sununu said then. 

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The governor’s surprise announcement spurred the creation of a commission last year, filled with both legalization advocates and longtime critics, including the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police and Communities for Alcohol and Drug-Free Youth. That commission deadlocked in November over the best approach forward. 

Now, some House representatives, such as Rep. Erica Layon, say the governor’s approach is the best way forward for an issue that’s vexed advocates for years. Layon, a Derry Republican, authored the latest amendment to the bill and spoke to a number of provisions that direct some of the money raised toward treatment and enforcement efforts against improper use. 

The bill’s preamble is stocked with language that adheres nearly exactly to the governor’s stated vision.

“Quite frankly, I think it’s high time we legalized marijuana in the state and that we do it in a way that actually can be signed into law,” Layon said.

That argument has persuaded a number of legalization advocates, particularly Democrats, who voted for the legalization bill in force Thursday. But some, like Wheeler, have called on the House to push for a more comprehensive approach. 

To Wheeler, the creation of agency stores would constitute a monopoly that could encourage larger companies to buy up licenses and dominate. And he argues the stores would not be attractive to consumers who could go to less centralized places – which might have more variety and lower prices – in other states.

“Big corporate cannabis has absolutely ruined the industry where it has been allowed to, opening the door for multi-state and in some cases multinational businesses to swoop in to those 15 stores that we would have in this bill and buy those stores,” he said. 

Layon and others, including House Democrats, have urged pragmatism, noting that the New Hampshire taxes in the proposed state-run model would still be lower than those in neighboring states. Meanwhile, some Republicans have urged cannabis skeptics to support the bill because it doesn’t launch New Hampshire into a market that it might later regret.

“No state has ever totally walked back and made marijuana illegal again,” said Rep. John Hunt, chairman of the House Commerce and Consumer Affairs Committee. “What most states wish to do is maybe do what we’re doing, which is take baby steps.” 

The bill could face bigger problems in the Senate, where many remain uneasy on the prospect of cannabis legalization at all.

“I’m not a big proponent of marijuana, even though I personally supported medical marijuana and decriminalization,” said Senate President Jeb Bradley, a Wolfeboro Republican, at a press conference in early January. “We’ll see what happens. I think at the end of the day, for those of us that are opposed to legalization and those of us that are in favor of it, we want to see something that works for New Hampshire, that protects public health, and (that) we ensure public safety.” 

Nonetheless, Bradley said, he saw “an opportunity.”

The bill will have a hearing and vote in the House Finance Committee in the coming weeks; it must receive a final vote by the full House by April 11 in order to cross over to the Senate.