HB 481 seeks to legalize marijuana in New Hampshire

by Kyle Mullins | 2/19/19 2:45am

The possibility of legalizing marijuana has reached New Hampshire, and its chances of success have never been higher. House Bill 481, introduced in the state House of Representatives in January by state Rep. Renny Cushing (D-Hampton), would legalize, regulate and tax cannabis, making New Hampshire the 11th state to do so. 

The bill comes on the heels of a report released by a legislative commission last year that made recommendations to legislators should the state choose to legalize marijuana. Several of these recommendations are included in HB 481, including a ban on possession for those under 21, a limit on the number of cultivated plants per household and a ban on public consumption of the drug. Possession of up to one ounce of cannabis and five grams of concentrated cannabis would be legal. 

Marijuana is currently legal in every state that borders New Hampshire. Maine and Massachusetts legalized it by ballot referendum in 2016 and Vermont’s state legislature legalized it in 2018. Canada also legalized marijuana in 2018. In New Hampshire, marijuana possession is decriminalized for up to three quarters of an ounce — meaning that offenders would receive a fine, not criminal charges — and medical use is legal. 

State senator Martha Hennessey ’76 (D-Hanover), a sponsor of the bill, said that while the new Democratic majority in both houses of the state legislature makes passage of the bill more likely, she does not believe it is “a partisan topic.”

“There are people from both parties on both sides, and some of the greatest advocates for legalization and regulation are in fact Republicans,” Hennessey said. 

New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu, a Republican, has said he will veto the bill, though Democratic Speaker of the House Steve Shurtleff told the Boston Globe in December that he believes there are enough votes in both chambers to override the veto. 

State Rep. Garrett Muscatel ’20 (D-Hanover) said he believes that the support of new, younger legislators will help HB 481 succeed. 

“There are 32 Democrats under the age of 40 who have been elected [to the state legislature] as of 2018,” Muscatel said. “Younger people tend to be more supportive of marijuana legalization, and 32 young people is a lot for a legislature that’s been one of the oldest in the country for a long time.”

A 2017 University of New Hampshire poll found that 68 percent of New Hampshire residents support the legalization of recreational marijuana use. A Gallup poll found in 2018 that 66 percent of Americans support the legalization of marijuana, including 78 percent of people aged 18-34. 

Muscatel noted that though he supports the idea of legalizing marijuana, he has not yet made a final decision on the bill yet. 

“I personally believe that we should definitely legalize marijuana, but we have to do it the right way,” he said. “I am prone to support [the bill], but I don’t know all the details and I’m still waiting to see the final report from the committee.”

He noted that the report would likely include recommendations for amendments. 

Dartmouth Democrats president Gigi Gunderson ’21 called the bill “a big step forward for New Hampshire in a positive direction.”

“As marijuana use becomes more widespread, the state is taking the onus of protecting the people that use it, legalizing it and of course getting revenue to help support state infrastructure from the legalization and subsequent taxing of marijuana,” Gunderson said.

College Republicans vice president Daniel Bring ’21 wrote in an email statement that he disagrees with the legalization of marijuana, calling it a “reprehensible policy objective” and noting that cannabis is a “harmful narcotic, the dangers of which are vastly underreported and ignored.”

“Even if this measure helps to alleviate New Hampshire’s financial problems, it will come at a grave social cost,” Bring wrote.

He added that “marijuana remains illegal under federal law, and all levels of government should enforce this prohibition.”

Both Hennessey and Muscatel dismissed the idea that the legalization of marijuana will exacerbate the opioid crisis in New Hampshire. 

“There’s very, very little data to say that legalization of marijuana has led to people using opioids,” Hennessey said. “In fact, there’s equal evidence that people have been able to stay away from opioids or get off opioids by using marijuana.”

Muscatel emphasized that there are many potential uses for the tax revenue generated from marijuana sales. The bill would levy a tax of $30 per ounce on the sale of cannabis flowers, $10 per ounce on other parts of the plant and $15 per immature plant. 

“We definitely could use the tax revenue,” Muscatel said. “We’ve flat-funded our university system since the recession. There’s a lot of money that should be going to our educational systems and to our cities and towns that isn’t going there.” 

Hennessey dismissed concerns that the bill would bring New Hampshire into conflict with federal law, noting there is an “understanding” that the federal government will not punish states that legalize recreational marijuana use. 

“They’re going to look the other way because they think it’s in the state’s domain,” she said. 

Hennessey added that “[legalization] will need to happen federally eventually.”

According to the 2018 Dartmouth Health Survey, 48 percent of Dartmouth students reported having ever used marijuana, an increase from 45 percent in 2016 and 35 percent in 2014. 

Regardless of whether or not New Hampshire legalizes marijuana, it remains unlikely that the substance will be permitted on Dartmouth’s campus. 

Department of Safety and Security interim director Keysi Montás wrote in an email statement that “regardless of state law, we have federal law to comply with.” 

According to Montás, federal regulations require that the College “develop and implement a program to prevent the unlawful possession, use, or distribution of illegal drugs and alcohol.” He added that smoking is still barred on campus as well and clarified that the College currently honors medical marijuana prescriptions.

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