The New Hampshire House voted yesterday to legalize marijuana.
The bill, which passed 170-162 after a long and lively debate, will now go to the House Ways and Means Committee. But it faces a tough road ahead; the bill must again pass the full House and then the Senate before it reaches Gov. Maggie Hassan’s desk.
Hassan, a Democrat who signed a medical marijuana bill into law last year, vowed to veto any marijuana legalization bill. The governor “does not support further efforts to legalize marijuana,” said her spokesman, Marc Goldberg.
The bill that passed the Democratic-controlled House yesterday would permit the possession of up to 1 ounce of marijuana, authorize its cultivation and impose a tax on its sale.
“We must . . . abandon our reefer madness mentality which has plagued this country for so long,” said Rep. Steve Vaillancourt.
Vaillancourt, a Manchester Republican and the bill’s prime sponsor, urged the House to become the first state to pass marijuana legalization through its legislature; voter referendums have legalized the drug in Colorado and Washington state. In a long speech before the House yesterday, Vaillancourt said public opinion about marijuana is changing, and New Hampshire should take advantage of the tax revenue that would come with its legalization and regulation.
Others said the laws in Colorado and Washington state are new, and New Hampshire should wait.
“Doesn’t it make sense to protect our children and wait awhile to see what actually happens in the states of Colorado and Washington?” asked Rep. William Butynski, a Hinsdale Democrat. “If this is legalized, I hope the people on the other side are correct, that it won’t cause a problem. But given my experience, both professionally and personally, I don’t think there’s a chance of that.”
Butynski, a retired substance abuse expert, raised concerns about the increasing potency of marijuana plants. He cited increases in car crashes and emergency room visits related to marijuana use. People under the influence of marijuana are twice as likely to become involved in motor vehicle accidents than those who are not using it, he said, citing New Hampshire Department of Safety statistics.
Under the bill approved yesterday, individuals 21 and older could purchase marijuana and grow up to six plants for personal use. Public smoking of marijuana would be prohibited. The state would tax manufacturing facilities and stores at a rate of $30 per ounce and institute a 15 percent sales tax on all marijuana sold.
he House Ways and Means Committee will address issues with regulation and taxation, Vaillancourt said.
Rep. Laurie Harding, a Democrat from Lebanon, said she supported the medical marijuana law that passed last year, and has supported efforts to decriminalize marijuana possession. Decriminalizing marijuana would keep the drug illegal, but would not charge individuals with a crime for possessing a small amount. Harding said legalizing the growth, distribution and possession of marijuana was too large a step for the House to take.
“We are being confronted with serious regulation issues,” Harding said. “The (Department of Revenue Administration) does not want to have to regulate legalized marijuana. In order to regulate appropriately, they’re going to have to write rules for cultivation facilities, for establishments. . . . It means they’ll have to write rules on production, on manufacturing facilities. They’ll have to write rules on retail stores and how retail stores will function, and on testing facilities as well.”
Several representatives who spoke against the bill yesterday said New Hampshire has one of the highest rates in the country of marijuana use by minors.
But Rep. Ruth Gage, a Goffstown Democrat, suggested that legalization would not change that rate, and that regulation could perhaps keep the drug away from underage users.
“Have our current policies been successful at keeping marijuana away from young people?” Gage asked. “The answer is clearly no.”
Yesterday’s vote to send the marijuana legalization bill to the House Ways and Means Committee came after more than two hours of debate and several close votes on the bill.