Senate committee recommends killing cannabis legalization bill

By ETHAN DEWITT

New Hampshire Bulletin

Published: 05-10-2023 12:07 PM

A key Senate committee recommended killing a cannabis legalization bill Tuesday, dealing a setback to an effort that passed the House with bipartisan support.

In a 3-2, party-line vote, Senate Judiciary Committee Republicans voted to recommend House Bill 639 “inexpedient to legislate” without discussion. That recommendation will go to a vote before the full Senate on Thursday. 

“New Hampshire, like many other states, is grappling with the devastating impact of the drug crisis on individuals, families, and communities,” Senate Majority Leader Sharon Carson, a Londonderry Republican and the chairwoman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said in a statement after the vote. “While I recognize the diverse opinions surrounding the legalization of recreational drugs, now is not the right time for such a measure.”

The committee vote is a blow to the House’s primary bill to legalize marijuana in New Hampshire this year. HB 639 would allow all adults 21 and older to possess, use, transport, grow, and gift a certain amount of cannabis, and would authorize retail sales from businesses that are licensed and taxed by the state. 

Under the bill, users could possess and use up to 4 ounces of cannabis in plant form or 20 ounces of concentrated cannabis products. The legalization bill would tax retail sales at 12.5 percent of the wholesale price, and direct 50 percent of the revenues toward reducing the Statewide Education Property Tax and 30 percent toward paying down the state retirement system’s $5 billion unfunded liability.

The bill attracted a number of supporters, including the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire, Americans for Prosperity New Hampshire, House Majority Leader Jason Osborne, and House Democratic Leader Matt Wilhelm. 

But as in past years, it appears to have run into opposition from the Senate, whose members have traditionally opposed cannabis legalization. And Gov. Chris Sununu has also expressed skepticism of legalization recently. 

At a press conference May 3, Sununu said he was encouraged by new technologies allowing law enforcement to detect cannabis use by drivers. But he said that the state should consider legalizing cannabis only once its other drug use problems are under control. 

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“You don’t legalize more drugs for money,” Sununu said. “Like, that’s just that’s not why you do it.” 

The three senators who voted to recommend killing the bill, Sens. Carson, Bill Gannon of Sandown, and Ruth Ward of Stoddard, did not comment on their decision to do so ahead of the vote. But in her statement afterward, Carson said that lawmakers should continue to support the state’s therapeutic cannabis program, which allows those with doctor’s certification for a number of conditions to buy regulated cannabis products in the state.

“We have an existing medical marijuana program that serves the needs of individuals with legitimate medical conditions,” Carson said. “Our focus should remain on ensuring that patients have access to the care they need while also prioritizing public safety.”

Ward was a replacement for Sen. Daryl Abbas, a Salem Republican and Judiciary Committee member, who was not present Tuesday. Abbas has been supportive of cannabis legalization efforts in the House.

Democratic Sens. Becky Whitley of Concord and Shannon Chandley of Amherst voted against the recommendation to kill the bill. 

Speaking ahead of the vote, Whitley said the bill would bring needed revenue to the state and allow the state to benefit from the spending that is happening in bordering states. And she argued that legalization would help reduce black market sales in New Hampshire. 

“Over 70 percent of our constituents that were recently polled support this, and I just think it’s pretty rare to have an issue or a policy that is so broadly supported,” Whitley said. “And so I think not acting on that – I think sends a pretty strong message to our constituents.”

While bills usually take at least a week to receive a floor vote after leaving a committee, HB 639 is expected to be expedited to the Senate floor on Thursday, and will appear on an addendum calendar. 

Earlier this year, legalization advocates had expressed hope of passing cannabis legalization in the Senate, pointing to the election of new Republican senators who had voted in favor of legalization as members of the House. It is not clear how the committee recommendation might change those members’ support. 

In a statement after the vote, Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, an advocacy group, urged the Senate to pass the bill anyway.

“New Hampshire residents are ready to join the growing number of states that have legalized cannabis for adults, and it is time for the Senate to stop standing in the way of progress,” O’Keefe said. 

But another advocate, Timothy Egan, a former House lawmaker and the chairman of the board of advisers for the New Hampshire Cannabis Association, said legalization supporters simply have a numbers challenge. 

“Here’s three things that will make it change,” Egan said Tuesday, speaking on the Senate’s opposition. “(Sen.) Lou D’Allesandro retires, (Sen.) Jeb Bradley retires, and Chris Sununu runs for president.” 

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