Commission to study marijuana legalization

by Anthony Robles | 10/31/17 2:05am

On Oct. 17, a New Hampshire commission that will examine the potential impact that legalizing marijuana for recreational use met for the first time. The 17-member commission, created by House Bill 215 and led by Republican State Rep. Patrick Abrami, will meet bimonthly before submitting a final report on Nov. 1, 2018, Abrami said.

“I charged everybody with leaving their biases behind, whether they are for it or against it,” Abrami said. “We’re just thinking about the facts and trying to let the facts speak for themselves.”

The creation of the commission comes after Republican Gov. Chris Sununu signed a bill this July that decriminalized possession of up to three-quarters of an ounce of marijuana, which made New Hampshire the last state in New England to decriminalize small amounts of the substance. Although the law stipulates that those found in possession of marijuana may not be charged criminally, law enforcement can still seize the drug and impose a fine.

According to Abrami, the commission will focus on 12 major points relating to legalization, which include its impact on crime rates and the ongoing opioid crisis, the manufacturing and distribution of the drug and how taxation would be managed.

According to a May survey from the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, 68 percent of Granite State residents favor legalizing marijuana for recreational use, with only 27 percent opposing such a measure.

Thus far, Alaska, California, Colorado, the District of Columbia, Maine, Massachusetts, Nevada, Oregon and Washington have fully legalized marijuana for recreational use. Abrami said that during their meetings, the commission will reach out to government officials in these states to find out how they handled the transition period after voting to legalize the drug. However, he noted that there was a major difference between New Hampshire and states that have legalized marijuana, including neighboring Maine and Massachusetts, which is that the legislation was decided by popular vote rather than a legislature vote.

“All these other states are referendum states,” Abrami said. “It was never voted on by the legislature. In New Hampshire, we don’t do anything by referendum. If we were to pass it, we would be the first state to pass it through the legislature.”

The taxation of marijuana in the state would prove particularly challenging, owing to the state’s unique constitution, Abrami noted. The New Hampshire constitution states that any tax imposed on a certain item would have to be imposed on the whole class, he said.

“For instance, if you’re selling a marijuana cookie in New Hampshire and wanted to impose a tax on the retail level, that means we would have to tax all cookies,” Abrami said. “We would have to be taxing chocolate chip cookies and Oreos as well.”

Abrami also noted the difficulties that come from finding cities willing to have a dispensary within their borders. For instance, although medical marijuana was first legalized in New Hampshire after Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan signed House Bill 573 on July 23, 2013, the state’s first dispensary did not open until April 2016. During that time, Hassan signed a bill that further expanded the use of medical marijuana in July 2015.

Marijuana Policy Project New England political director Matt Simon was among those in attendance for the committee’s first meeting. While he said he viewed the committee as a positive step forward to legalizing recreational marijuana in New Hampshire, he expressed concerns about the membership of the committee.

According to Simon, the version of the bill that passed in the state House of Representatives included members of the New Hampshire American Civil Liberties Union chapter and Marijuana Policy Project as part of the commission. However, the bill was amended in the state Senate, removing the two organizations from the committee and leaving mainly government agencies and departments.

“We think it’s going to be a challenge working with the commission, but at the same time, I appreciated at the first meeting the tone that was set by [Abrami],” Simon said. “He urged members to leave their personal biases at home and objectively evaluate the issue so those of us on the advocacy side have to trust that they’re going to do that.”

Ultimately, however, Simon believes that the upcoming election cycle will matter more for the issue than the final report the committee submits, as all 400 seats in the state House, 24 seats in the state Senate and the governorship will be contested, he said.

“We know that marijuana legalization is going to be one of the top issues in the election,” Simon said. “I care a lot more about the conversation that’s happening in the commission than I care about the final report. Given the number of opponents, I don’t think there’s much chance that enough of them will evolve to the point that they recommend it.”

Concerning the potential impact that legalization might have, Jacob Borodovsky, a Ph.D. candidate at The Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy and Clinical Practice and the Center for Technology and Behavioral Health, said that the most important aspect for the state to focus on was marketing. Borodovsky was the lead author on a study that investigated the affect of marijuana dispensaries on adolescent consumption.

“If you legalize it, you want to make sure you put regulations in place,” Borodovsky said. “There are plenty of options for legalization where you legalize it, but you don’t treat it like candy. You treat it like what it is — an addictive substance that probably should only be in the hands of adults –—and you do it in a smart, systematic, highly regulated way that is public-health oriented to make sure you mitigate any harms that could come from it.”

Borodovsky compared the path that marijuana legalization might take to that of tobacco and alcohol, noting that in the tobacco industry, companies were motivated by profit and thereby benefited from people being addicted to the substances. If rampant advertisements of cannabis were allowed, much like those that advertise alcohol, an increase in the rate of cannabis use might ensue, leading to a greater number of people with “cannabis use disorder,” he said.

Underage users of cannabis are particularly susceptible to developing cannabis use disorder, as cannabis is an addictive substance that can cause symptoms of withdrawal, Borodovsky said. He added, however, that on the scale of addictive substances, cannabis was on the lower end of intensity, both in terms of how addictive it is and the proportion of people who become addicted once they try it. If legalization were to happen, Borodovsky believes that drug education for teenagers would need to change as well.

“Our prevention strategies need to move away from the [drug abuse resistance education] model because we know [Drug Abuse Resistance Education] doesn’t work,” Borodovsky said. “We need better preventative messaging that’s more realistic and that we think will actually have an effect on deterring kids from picking up substance use and among those who may inevitably pick up substance use, potentially delaying said picking up.”