Commentary: New Hampshire, it’s time to unite and legalize cannabis

July 16, 2021 5:10 am
Closeup of a man smoking a joint

New Hampshire would be among states in violation of a major federal drug statute if new efforts to legalize marijuana succeed. (Sean Gallup | Getty Images)

This column was updated on Monday, June 19, at 10:15 a.m. to clarify that Gov. Sununu has never vetoed cannabis legalization because no legislation on the recreational use of marijuana has reached his desk.

In this now hyper-partisan world that we call New Hampshire, is there one thing still capable of defying party lines? If there is, it just might be weed. That’s right, folks, cannabis just might be the unifier we all need. 

This week, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer proposed federal legislation to decriminalize cannabis. In weeks monopolized by infrastructure and voting rights, cannabis seems to have come out of nowhere. And yet, if the ultimate goal in Washington is bipartisanship, perhaps cannabis is not such an odd prospect to call off the bench. 

Cannabis legalization is wildly popular, and that’s not hyperbole. According to a Gallup poll conducted late last year, 68 percent of Americans support cannabis legalization. Find me another policy issue that polls that high right now. In a country almost split down the partisan aisle in terms of numbers, cannabis by default has to be bipartisan if it is polling at 68 percent.   

Restrict the polling to just New Hampshire and support for legalization rises to an astounding 75 percent. Polling is like candy to political junkies, which is why I’ll point out here that cannabis legalization is even more popular in New Hampshire than the governor who opposes it – and Chris Sununu is polling well. 

Again, to reach 75 percent, cannabis has to be drawing support from all parties. Having spoken to a number of Granite Staters about cannabis, I also know that among that 75 percent are a good number of single-issue “weed voters,” looking exclusively for candidates who are publicly and unequivocally pro-cannabis. 

This makes it all the more confounding that New Hampshire remains an island of prohibition. Granite Staters can cross the border in any direction and legally purchase cannabis, not unlike how New Hampshire lures out-of-staters to purchase liquor. 

Funny that you should mention alcohol, you say? Our state readily uses alcohol to raise revenue and yet insists on turning a blind eye to the revenue potential of cannabis. New Hampshire sends money out of state every day we retain prohibition as Granite Staters take their dollars elsewhere and bring cannabis back. (Which makes one of the most obvious points regarding cannabis – prohibition does not keep cannabis out of New Hampshire, full stop, period.) 

With a state budget this year that is going to spike property taxes, it’s worth asking how many more voters will be interested in cannabis legalization next year as property owners desperately seek tax relief. 

The two cannabis legalization bills introduced in the New Hampshire House this past session were both retained in committee. With all retained bills having to be voted on by mid-November, cannabis is poised to retake center stage this fall and potentially throughout next session. 

I would wager that cannabis might soon graduate from legislative relevance to electoral relevance in this state that claims liberty as its North Star. For New Hampshire, next year’s election cycle is likely to be dominated by the U.S. Senate race, which could impact which party has control of the Senate, and the New Hampshire gubernatorial race, which could be wide open if Sununu surprises no one and climbs into the ring with Sen. Maggie Hassan for her seat. 

Right now, Hassan and Sununu are on the same page when it comes to cannabis legalization – they both oppose it. But should Sununu challenge Hassan, and should that race prove close, either candidate could finally read the weed leaves of their state and make a move for those single-issue cannabis voters. 

As governor, Hassan signed legislation allowing medical cannabis in New Hampshire but has not publicly budged in her opposition to legalization. Like so many Democrats who have won statewide races, Hassan is often decried by her own voters as overly cautious and moderate. 

In a purple state, towing the center line might make sense. However, recall that cannabis is wildly popular here. The center line be damned with an issue that bridges the line. Why oppose an issue that the vast majority of constituents support? 

For his part, Sununu signed legislation decriminalizing three-quarters of an ounce of cannabis, but has consistently opposed legalization and even medical cannabis home grow, going so far as to veto home-grow legislation in 2019. His stance on cannabis obviously has not hurt him in recent elections. That said, he has not been in a race where cannabis was made a front-and-center issue – or in a race running simultaneously with the federal government’s consideration of legalization legislation. 

The federal government’s continued criminalization of cannabis has been a convenient political excuse for candidates to dodge cannabis legalization – the excuse being that states should defer legalization until after the federal government removes it from the Controlled Substances Act. This is a flimsy excuse given the increasing number of states with booming cannabis businesses. That said, if Schumer introduces federal legislation and Congress shows genuine interest in passing it, the heat will be turned up on candidates at the state level to support legalization.  

New Hampshire is a purple state. Our state Legislature flip-flops as often as the weather, although the looming threat of redistricting could change that for at least a decade. That said, redistricting will not impact the gubernatorial race, which could potentially see primaries for both parties (or three if the Libertarian Party shows up) if Sununu opts to run for the Senate. Primaries could be fertile ground for cannabis. 

A wide-open gubernatorial race and a close Senate race could be just what cannabis needs to catapult itself to an election-defining issue. Sprinkle in newly drawn state Senate districts that could produce competitive primaries or close races in swing districts, and cannabis could take center stage come Election Day.  

Alternatively, the New Hampshire Legislature could recognize the damage this past session of visceral hyper-partisanship did to our state and embrace cannabis as the great unifier. Legislators from the left and legislators from the right could hold hands, pass cannabis legalization next year, and Sununu could sign it to boost his electoral prospects right as the election heats up. 

While the civil rights advocate in me would love to see legalization finally achieved by this time next year, the political junkie in me is rubbing her hands together at the prospect of a cannabis election. Either way, New Hampshire will legalize cannabis. It is inevitable. The only question is which Granite State politicians will finally see cannabis as the political windfall that it is and, personal feelings aside, bring it across the finish line. 

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