For the eighth time since 2008, the New Hampshire House of Representatives has passed a bill that would remove the criminal penalties for the possession of marijuana.
Inside of the oldest chamber still in use by a state government in the nation, the NH House voted overwhelmingly (318-36 ) in favor of reducing the penalty for possession of one ounce or less of marijuana from a criminal misdemeanor to a civil violation.
Hopes have been dashed in the past, but Marijuana Policy Project New England Political Director, Matt Simon, is hopeful.
“This year the result will be different,” he said.
Despite nearly a decade of success in the House, marijuana policy reform has developed slowly in the face of a largely hostile state senate and governor’s office: previous Democratic governors John Lynch and his successor Maggie Hassan both put word out early that they were no friends of decriminalization. And in previous years, the stern words of prohibitionist governors were enough to scuttle the progress of the house’s nearly-annual attempt to reduce criminal penalties for possession.
But Gov. Chris Sununu has consistently said he supports decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana, as opposed to nailing the coffin shut on arrival like his predecessors. Thanks to this, the 2017 effort behind HB 640 has faced much less opposition than similar bills that failed in recent years.
Only one person testified against the bill at a public hearing on February 1, and the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee — which voted 7-6 last year to kill a similar measure (HB 1631) — approved HB 640 in a decisive 14-2 vote.
“Most representatives agree it is time to stop wasting limited public resources on arrests for simple marijuana possession,” Simon said. “We hope their colleagues in the senate will agree that our tax dollars and law enforcement officials’ time would be better spent addressing serious crimes.”
Activists and state house champions of the issue are also back my more support than ever at the local level in one of America’s most politically active states. More than seven out of 10 Granite Staters, 72 percent, would like to see the Legislature decriminalize or legalize marijuana, according to a WMUR Granite State Poll conducted by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center in July 2016.
“There is very little public support for continuing to criminalize marijuana consumers,” Simon said. “Marijuana is objectively less harmful than alcohol, and a strong majority of Granite Staters want the Legislature to start treating it that way.”
HB 640 was primarily sponsored by Rep. Renny Cushing, with a bipartisan group of 10 co-sponsors. It would reduce the penalty for possession of up to one ounce of marijuana from a criminal misdemeanor — currently punishable by up to one year in prison and a fine of up to $2,000 — to a civil violation, punishable by a fine of $100 for a first offense, $200 for a second offense within three years and $350 for a third or subsequent offense within three years of two previous offenses.
NH currently arrests thousands of marijuana users annually: in 2012, nearly 3,000 people were arrested for possession. Many of those arrests happen on the popular Interstate 95 corridor running between Boston, Portland and the resort town of Southern Maine, measuring only 18 miles — the shortest coastline of any U.S. State.
A lot of 2017’s cannabis energy in the Granite State is thanks to the great momentum built during 2016. In that election year, when the state’s pride and joy (their first-in-the-nation presidential primary) was front and center, the state’s paper of record — The Concord Monitor — called dispensaries opening in the state the number six story of the year.
TELL US, do you think New Hampshire will manage to pass a decriminalization law this time?