State decriminalizes marijuana

by Aleena Vigoda | 7/27/17 11:55pm

Last Tuesday, Gov. Chris Sununu signed HB 640, a marijuana decriminalization bill that will reduce penalties for marijuana possession. The new law, which will take effect on August 18, diminishes the penalty for possessing three quarters of an ounce or less of marijuana from a criminal misdemeanor to a fineable civil violation. The bill passed on March 8 with a vote of 318-36 in the New Hampshire House of Representatives.

Julia Griffin, Hanover’s town manager, cites censure from police chiefs and public safety agents as a reason to oppose the bill. The main opposition towards this policy change is that it may lead to an increase in the use of marijuana and other drugs, she said.

“In general, municipalities and state departments are not eager to see the decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana because of the belief that marijuana is a gateway drug and can lead to heavier usage of other drugs,” Griffin said.

Patrick Murphy, the director of research and senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, observed a similar trend after the initial decriminalization of marijuana in California.

“By all accounts, use went up,” Murphy said.

He added that while the total consumption of marijuana increased, research is unclear on the law’s impact on individual consumption of marijuana.

Murphy additionally said he observed a decrease in incarceration rates following the policy change. Jason Sorens, a professor of government at Dartmouth, said he expects an analogous outcome in New Hampshire.

“Because the smell of marijuana alone will no longer be probable cause for search, arrests for other drug-related offenses should also abate,” Sorens said.

He further predicted a decline in state expenditures due to fewer law enforcements.

The decriminalization policy is expected to increase demand for marijuana, in part due to a shift away from alcohol usage. This substitution may result in a slight revenue loss for the state of New Hampshire, but an increase in the price of marijuana both on and off the black market. Sorens explains that decriminalization will not have a negative effect on the demand for marijuana on the black market.

“If lawmakers wanted to remove the black market, decriminalization does not help with that — only legalization will,” Sorens said.

However, Murphy sees a potential positive effect from substituting marijuana for alcohol.

“If legalization means a lot of people who currently consume alcohol transition to marijuana, we might be doing better for society,” Murphy said, regarding the lower risk level of marijuana to alcohol consumption. He notes that if legalization results in a combination of alcohol and marijuana usage, there could be a net loss to society.

The long-run political ramifications of the policy change are still uncertain, Sorens said. Historically, Republicans such as Sununu have been nearly as likely as Democrats to pass marijuana decriminalization bills in New Hampshire; however, legalization bills tend to be opposed by Republicans in the Senate. Both Murphy and Sorens said that decriminalization does seem to be tied with legalization in the long run and that recreational legalization of marijuana will happen eventually.

“There’s a roughly 2-1 support for legalization and regulation of marijuana in New Hampshire,” Sorens said.

Marijuana was legalized in Massachusetts and Maine through the Marijuana Legalization Initiative, a process commissioning the use, cultivation and possession of recreational marijuana. Sorens said the legalization will increase state revenues for Massachusetts and Maine. He added that New Hampshire lawmakers may be concerned by the potential loss of revenue if they don’t vote for legalization.

However, though the trend across states has been towards legalization, no state has yet to do so through the legislative process. Because New Hampshire does not have a citizen’s ballot initiative, it is unlikely that the state will legalize marijuana in the next couple of years, Sorens said.

Last month in Vermont, the House voted against a legalization bill after it passed in the Assembly and Senate. Gov. Phil Scott sent the bill back to legislators to request stronger protections against impaired driving and underage access to marijuana. Murphy believes that Vermont has high incentive to legalize.

“On a population basis, Vermont is the largest marijuana consuming state in the nation, and has a strong desire to work towards legalization,” Murphy said.

Whether or not legalization of marijuana is in the future, the most important responsibility is working towards efficient regulative measures, particularly because there are have been no definitive studies on the ramifications of marijuana usage, Murphy said.

Murphy recognizes the challenges in regulation after legalization.

“Locally, we find conflicting viewpoints between political parties about taxation and growing marijuana for recreational purposes,” he said of California’s statewide public referendum.

Zachary Benjamin and Nalini Ramanathan contributed reporting.