State marijuana legalization bill progresses to Senate

by Wally Joe Cook | 1/19/18 2:50am

On Tuesday, Jan. 9, the New Hampshire House of Representatives voted in favor of legalizing recreational marijuana. If passed into law, the bill, sponsored by two Republicans and two Libertarians, would legalize the cultivation, possession and use of marijuana by people 21 years of age or older. Additionally, the bill would authorize the licensing of marijuana wholesale, retail, cultivation and testing facilities and would also tax marijuana sales.

For the bill to pass into law, it also needs to be approved by the New Hampshire Senate. Additionally, Gov. Chris Sununu would need to either sign the bill within five days or allow it to pass without his signature.

Benjamin Vihstadt ’16, Sununu’s press secretary, wrote in an email statement that Sununu is opposed to legalizing marijuana for recreational use.

“My administration has supported commonsense reforms to decriminalize marijuana use and expand availability of medical marijuana,” Sununu said in a written statement through Vihstadt. “The reality remains that New Hampshire is in the midst of a drug crisis, and now is not the time for recreational legalization.”

Medical marijuana use, however, has been legal in New Hampshire since 2013.

According to Dale Gieringer, a board member of the California National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Legalization, an advocacy group for marijuana legalization, Sununu’s opposition to recreational marijuana is unfounded.

“Marijuana is definitively safer than other illegal drugs, and decriminalizing or legalizing it has no adverse effects on the rest of society,” Gieringer said.

Michelle Rutter, government relations manager at the National Cannabis Industry Association, an organization that represents the interests of cannabis-related businesses, concurred with Gieringer’s conclusions. She said that legalizing marijuana may help combat the opioid epidemic. From 1999 to 2013, states where medical marijuana was legal recorded 25 percent fewer deaths and, in 2014, 23 percent fewer hospitalizations from opioid painkillers than states where it was illegal, she said.

Rutter also cited research from 2017, showing that legalizing medical marijuana across all states in 2014 could have saved $1 billion in Medicaid costs.

Gieringer emphasized the idea that legalizing marijuana could also have economic benefits.

“You’re basically trying to eliminate an illicit market and replace it with a legal market, legal jobs and legal taxes,” Gieringer said. “In California, we’re anticipating up to 100,000 legal jobs in the industry and up to one billion dollars in tax revenue.”

According to Rutter, marijuana legalization can promote innovation and job growth and could benefit the real estate market.

Hanover town manager Julia Griffin said that if the bill was passed, there could be a movement for a marijuana dispensary in Hanover, but it is too early to know for sure.

“We haven’t really even started thinking about this yet in terms of local retailers that might be selling marijuana,” Griffin said. “It doesn’t make much sense to worry about something and figure out how you’re going to respond to it until you know the implementation details.”

However, Griffin added that the statewide response to legalized marijuana could be similar to the response to the sale of medical marijuana. In that instance, many communities voiced to the state that they did not want medical marijuana retailers in their towns, she said.

“The state responded to the public’s concern by limiting the number of locations where licenses would be issued,” Griffin said.

According to Griffin, in the case of medical marijuana, towns cannot ban facilities, but the state can regulate where dispensaries and farms are placed. She explained that the state responded to towns’ concerns by only allowing four medical marijuana facilities to operate in the state. Griffin expects a similar response by communities in New Hampshire if marijuana were to be legalized. With regards to Hanover specifically, Griffin is unsure of how the town would respond.

“Time with tell whether there will be a movement in the community to ban marijuana sales, but I’m not hearing people talk about that right now,” Griffin said.

While Griffin is unsure how Hanover would respond to legalization, she is confident people would not want dispensaries near schools or public parks. Additionally, she anticipates there may be a movement to ban smoking marijuana in public. Griffin has also heard little support for legalization.

According to Rutter, operating a marijuana dispensary can be dangerous.

“This is obviously a huge public safety problem,” Rutter said.

She fears that because the marijuana industry is a cash business, dispensaries may become targets for theft.

However, Griffin is not focusing on the effects of marijuana legalization at the moment.

“It’s probably just the beginning of a fairly long period of back and forth,” Griffin said of the legislative process.