CONCORD — A bill to legalize small amounts of marijuana received a mixed reaction from Carroll County's N.H. House members last week. House Speaker Gene Chandler (R-Bartlett) just says no.
The House Bill is HB 656. It would permit adults to possess up to ¾ of an ounce of marijuana, 5 grams of hashish, and certain marijuana-infused products; permit adults to cultivate up to six marijuana plants at home in a secure location that is not visible from other properties, and to possess and process the marijuana produced from their plants at the same location; permit adults to give marijuana to other adults, provided it is not more than ¾ of an ounce of marijuana, 5 grams of hashish, or up to 300 mg of marijuana-infused products, or three immature plants; provides that smoking or vaporizing marijuana in public by an adult would be punishable by a $100 fine; provides that violations of the restrictions on cultivation would be a violation punishable by fine of up to $750; penalizes dangerous, volatile extraction; and permits adults to possess, make, and sell marijuana accessories to other adults.
The bill passed 207-139. Carroll County lawmakers were on both sides of the issue and it didn't break down on party lines. In Carroll County, six lawmakers voted in favor, and seven were opposed.
Voting for the bill were: Lino Avellani (R-Wakefield), Tom Buco (D-Conway), Ed Comeau (R-Brookfield), Edith DesMarais (D-Wolfeboro), Jerry Knirk (D-Freedom), William Marsh (R-Brookfield).
Voting no were: Glenn Cordelli (R-Tuftonboro), Karel Crawford (R-Moultonborough), Frank McCarthy (R-Conway), Mark McConkey (R-Freedom), Bill Nelson (R-Brookfield), Stephen Schmidt (R-Wolfeboro) and Karen Umberger (R-Conway).
Ed Butler (D-Hart's Location) missed the vote because he was on vacation, but he said in a phone interview he supports legalization.
Speaker of the House Gene Chandler (R-Bartlett), because of his rank, would vote only in the event of a tie, but he told The Sun he opposes legalization.
"I don't support it, but the House chose to do something different," said Chandler. "The House has kind of had a long-standing affinity for marijuana."
Such bills have historically died in the state Senate, said Chandler.
State Sen. Jeb Bradley (R-Wolfeboro) said he is not on board to pass the bill and expects that there is a bipartisan majority in the Senate that will oppose it.
He said he was concerned about marijuana legalization in the midst of the opioid crisis and the impact it will have on highway safety. He would like to know more about the effect legalization has had on other states, like Colorado.
"I'm not prepared to support it," said Bradley.
Chandler said he agrees with Gov. Chris Sununu that this is not the time to approve recreational marijuana.
"I agree with the governor's sentiment we are in the midst of an opioid crisis, and I use the word 'crisis' only because I can't think of a stronger adjective to describe it," said Chandler. "Here we are in the middle of one, and we're approving another drug."
The Sun polled Carroll County's lawmakers on why they voted the way they did.
Among those who responded by press time was Marsh, who said: "Prohibition did not work in the 1920s, and it is not working now. New Hampshire has far better ways to spend its money than to pursue a war on marijuana that the majority of the public no longer believes in.
"This does not mean I believe marijuana is safe, should be used while driving or would be acceptable in my house. Abuse of marijuana like abuse of alcohol can be quite destructive. It can be an entry drug. And the experience of states like Colorado has led to the discovery of new clinical syndromes like cannabinoid hyperemesis syndrome. So, again, it is not 'safe.' Nor do I believe in 'medical' uses in the absence of safety and efficacy data."
McCarthy said he is against any bill that legalizes in any way the use of marijuana, which he believes is a gateway drug.
"Over the last two years, this state has lost very close to 1,000 of our civilians to drug overdoses," said McCarthy. "It is, I believe, extremely hypocritical to spend millions of dollars of taxpayers' money fighting a drug crisis and then turn around and tell the young people 'don't use bad drugs, it's OK to use use marijuana.'"
But Knirk listed several reasons to legalize it, including that it could help with the opioid crisis.
"In states that have legalized medicinal marijuana, there have been drops in opioid prescribing and use of opioids and fewer opioid overdose deaths," said Knirk. "Therefore, legalization of marijuana may actually lead to less opioid use and overdose."
Knirk said it's "virtually impossible" to overdose from marijuana, and it doesn't lead to poisoning or violence like alcohol. He said marijuana use can harm fetuses, but so can alcohol, which is legal. He said marijuana can make money for the state through taxation and legalization, would save money on enforcement.
Umberger said more work has to be done to study the issue.
"I voted against HB 656 because there is currently a study commission looking at all aspects of marijuana," said Umberger. "Their report is due in November. I firmly believe we need to let this commission finish its work before any changes to the state laws."
Buco said: "In the past, I have voted against this because we were waiting to see the effects in states that had legalized. We now have the experience of those states, and we have not seen the negative effects that were predicted."
But Cordelli said he agreed with Chandler and the governor.
"I believe that it would send the absolute wrong message in the midst of an opioid crisis," said Cordelli.
The next step in the process is for the bill to go to the Ways and Means Committee, said Chandler. He said this committee looks at the financial aspects of the bill. Ways and Means will take it up Feb. 1.
He said after Ways and Means, the bill has at least one more vote in the House before going to the state Senate.
"They could make recommendations with amendments to add whatever they want," said Chandler.
Rep. Ed Comeau (R-Brookfield) said before the bill was amended, it had a tax component, but lawmakers didn't like it, and therefore that part was removed.
He said he doesn't want marijuana sales to create more bureaucracy. Comeau who said he will refuse to support the bill if taxes are added back in by Ways and Means.
DesMarais voted to support legalization in part out of consideration for those from neighboring states like Maine who have already done so.
"With the surrounding states legalizing it, we will be seeing it come across state lines," said DesMarais. "I don't want to see New Hampshire criminalizing many of our citizens or visitors from surrounding states who are found with small amounts of marijuana on their person or in their cars."
Chandler said marijuana remains illegal on the federal level.
"Federal law takes precedence over state law," he said.