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The House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee listens to testimony Tuesday on legislation to legalize recreational marijuana sponsored by the committee's chairman, Rep. Renny Cushing, D-Hampton. (PAULA TRACY PHOTO)

CONCORD — A bill that would legalize, tax and regulate adult use of marijuana in New Hampshire was heard before a crowd of more than 200 people in Representatives Hall on Tuesday.

Kate Frey of New Futures New Hampshire, an opponent of legalization who served on a statewide commission that studied possible legalization, said House Bill 481 is irresponsible legislation that does not protect the state, particularly its children.

“Since 2013 we have had a robust medical program with 7,000 participants,” she said, but this measure would allow for a high-potency drug with no limits and it would allow for vaping in public.

“We are an island,” Frey said, acknowledging the state is surrounded by states and a Canadian province that have already legalized pot, but insisted New Hampshire should remain that island for its families’ health.

“Marijuana is a harmful addictive product, especially for kids,” she said. “Their brain is still developing” and the drug would damage it.

Paul Twomey of Chichester, another member of a commission and a retired criminal defense attorney, said studies show legalization of adult use actually keeps kids safe.

In five states that have decriminalized cannabis, Twomey said, youth use has declined.

He said legalization would effectively limit youth access to other drugs sold on the black market, including opioids.

Republican Gov. Chris Sununu has not supported legalization in the past but advocates said they hope he will be open-minded as the conversation goes forward through House Bill 481. Sununu has said the state is in an addiction crisis and this would add to the problem rather than improve it.

An override of a veto would require two-thirds support in both House and Senate.

Advocates believe legalization has the best chance ever of passing in New Hampshire this year because the November election brought in a number of new legislators who campaigned in support of legalization.

House Bill 481 as introduced, follows many of the recommendations from the bipartisan state commission that looked at how the state might want to regulate it if it decided to legalize.

The bill says it is in the state’s interest that law enforcement focus on violence and property crimes rather than arresting people for consuming marijuana or cannabis.

It has been estimated that taxing marijuana could raise $33 million a year. Thirty-three percent of that money would go to the general fund. The rest would be distributed to public health and education, law enforcement and first responders.

The bill would declare the use of cannabis to be legal for a person 21 years of age or older and be taxed in a manner similar to alcohol. It would be illegal to sell it to minors and driving under the influence would remain illegal and cannabis that is sold would need to be tested, labeled for content, and subject to additional regulations.

People would not be allowed to grow cannabis in public view, or within access of a minor. Public smoking would be prohibited with a fine of not more than $100. It would also be prohibited to be consumed in a moving car, boat, aircraft or recreational vehicle with fines of not more than $500 or suspension of license for up to 6 months upon first violation. It would also continue to be illegal to sell outside of a state controlled dispensary.

The bill looks to create a cannabis control commission with regulatory and licensing authority over cannabis establishments. The commission would consist of the chairperson of the commission and two commissioners who would be nominated by the governor within 30 days of the bill’s passage.

The bill’s prime sponsor, state Rep. Renny Cushing, D-Hampton, also chairman of the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee which heard the bill, said the time has come to take pot out of the hands of drug dealers and treat it like alcohol, controlled for use by adults age 21 and over.

Alex Cooney of Raymond, a student, said there is already a misperception among his peers of the risk of marijuana. Legalization would only make that worse if the measure is passed, he said.

Bedford Police Chief John Bryfonski, representing the New Hampshire Chiefs of Police Association, also opposed the legislation.

For police, it would be difficult to test for impairment among drivers of cannabis, he said, and there is no solution on the horizon.

The state has already decriminalized small amounts in 2017.  New Hampshire passed a law allowing for the medical use of marijuana in 2013, but adult legalization is a different thing, he said.

“It’s just not the right choice for New Hampshire,” Bryfonski said.

Dr. Joe Hannon, a member of the study commission, supported the bill and said New Hampshire kids have no problem accessing the drug on the black market now, which might change if it is legalized for adults.

It is not a completely harmless substance, he conceded, adding neither are alcohol or tobacco.

“Do we want the market to be run by criminals?” Hannon asked. “Or do we want a regulated market that is responsible and allows adults to choose.”

David Crawford said the measure is long overdue.

“I was a kid once but I smoked pot,” he said. “It wasn’t the big horrible thing.”

There were about 50 speakers at the hearing, split among opponents and supporters. At the beginning of the hearing, a list outside the hall showed 115 attending who did not want to speak, with 41 indicating they opposed the measure.

The bill is opposed by New Futures, a nonprofit public health lobby, the New Hampshire Medical Society and individual physicians, the New Hampshire Chiefs of Police and the New Hampshire State Police associations, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Manchester and the American Automobile Association.

It is supported by the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans for Prosperity — New Hampshire, among others.

The bill is available to view at tinyurl.com/y7fblt95.

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