N.H. House first to pass bill legalizing marijuana

by Heather Szilagyi | 1/16/14 10:04pm

The New Hampshire House of Representatives became the first legislative chamber in the country to pass a bill legalizing recreational marijuana on Wednesday. After a lengthy and heated debate, the House voted 170 to 162 for initial approval of the bill, though it still faces serious hurtles before becoming law.

House Bill 492 would legalize personal use of up to one ounce of the drug for anyone 21 or older, permit the cultivation of up to six marijuana plants and create a system for taxing and regulating sale of the drug.

The House initially adopted a committee report that labeled it “inexpedient to legislate,” killing the bill, but supporters convinced some legislators to change their votes and overturn the committee report, State Rep. George Lambert, R-Litchfield, said. Lambert is a co-sponsor of the bill.

“It was like taking out paddles and shocking it and bringing it back to life,” he said.

The bill comes on the heels of similar measures that voters approved in Colorado and Washington. The sale of marijuana for recreational use became legal in Colorado on Jan. 1.

Supporters of the bill cited personal freedom, popular support and tax revenues as reasons for supporting the legislation.

“I’ve long believed that the war on drugs is a terrible waste of resources and unfairly punished people for victimless crimes and personal behaviors,” said co-sponsor State Rep. Mark Warden, R-Manchester.

While he is a co-sponsor of the bill, Warden does not think it goes far enough and said he would support legalizing marijuana without any restrictions.

“I would treat it like a tomato you grow in your backyard,” he said.

State Rep. William Butynski, D-Hinsdale, a retired substance abuse expert, said the expected tax revenue generated by legalization cannot be determined. Though he opposes the bill, Butynski said that effective treatment and prevention are viable alternatives to incarceration.

There is a tough road ahead if the bill is to become a law. It heads back to the House Ways and Means Committee and, if it passes a second vote in the House, will go to the Senate, which rejected a less stringent decriminalization bill last year. Despite signing medical marijuana legislation, Gov. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., has said she would veto the bill.

“The vocal opposition from the governor is a problem, and I think some in the Senate are going to use that as cover,” Warden said.

Butynski said he opposes the bill as a matter of public health and advised the New Hampshire legislature to wait until the effects of the law’s passage in Colorado become evident.

“If all adults could purchase marijuana, it becomes much more available and accessible to underage people,” he said. “And that’s clearly a problem.”

Matt Simon, the New England political director of the Marijuana Policy Project, said this “symbolic victory” will make legalization a top issue this election cycle.

Despite national momentum, Simon added that recreational legalization in New Hampshire would be surprising, as New Hampshire was last state in New England to legalize marijuana for medical purposes and failed to pass decriminalization legislation, which removes criminal penalties for possession but does not make consumption legal.

Lambert said popular support could make legalizing marijuana a reality, and noted that the bill’s passage marked an unprecedented opportunity for public engagement.

Some New Hampshire legislators who have been fighting for legalization for years believe the tides are shifting in their favor. Lambert has been an advocate since before he joined the House.

“I’ve been going up for seven years to the House to hand out literature on some sort of decriminalization or legalization of marijuana,” Lambert said.

An October study by the University of New Hampshire found that 60 percent of voting-age adults in the state approve of H.B. 492.

The U.S. Department of Justice has stated that it will not challenge state laws that legalize marijuana, but Marijuana Policy Project spokesperson Mason Tvert said it could effectively challenge regulation and licensing provisions. This, however, would essentially leave marijuana use completely unrestricted — a scenario that the government will do its best to avoid, therefore making any challenge unlikely.

Warden said there is a growing dichotomy between public opinion and the legislators’ beliefs.

Dartmouth students echoed this sentiment in their support of legalization.

While some said the legislation shows a continued trend toward liberal policy, others emphasized that marijuana use is an individual decision.

“Since it doesn’t necessarily affect community health, it affects personal health, as long as it’s taxed properly I have no issue with it,” Gabby Bozarth ’17 said.

This article has been updated to reflect the following correction:

Correction appended: January 18, 2014

The original version of the article did not identify George Lambert as a co-sponsor of the bill. For clarity, this identification has been added.

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