Legalization advocates hope new Legislature will bring momentum to cannabis fight

By: - January 10, 2023 6:30 am

Marijuana legalization advocates argue they have their best chance yet of delivering a bill to Gov. Chris Sununu’s desk. (Ethan Miller | Getty Images)

Efforts to legalize cannabis in New Hampshire are coming back this legislative session, after years of legislative defeats.

Lawmakers have tried simple legalization bills and complex legislation. Both approaches have crashed against opposition in the state Senate. But this year, supporters say they’re coming at the problem with their biggest coalition yet. 

A sprawling bill to legalize the drug, allow for it to be grown at home, and regulate and tax retail operations is set to be introduced in the New Hampshire House this year, and it has the backing of House Majority Leader Jason Osborne and House Democratic Leader Matt Wilhelm, a rare joint effort.

This session’s effort has a diverse array of backers in the state, from ACLU of New Hampshire to Americans for Prosperity New Hampshire to the Marijuana Policy Project. Supporters say the final bill is the result of months of discussions with a number of stakeholders. 

And legalization advocates argue they have their best chance yet of delivering a bill to Gov. Chris Sununu’s desk, pointing to a handful of freshmen Republican senators who may push them over the finish line. 

Still, recent history is not on supporters’ side, and the Senate can be fickle no matter who sits in it. Sununu, who has veered between opposing cannabis legalization to expressing cautious openness, has not given indications of his position. And while public opinion in the state supports legalization, police unions and some health-focused organizations have still urged restraint, suggesting a combative year ahead. 

Matt Simon, a longtime legalization advocate who helped craft the latest bill, is optimistic.  

“I think what’s going to be different this year is that we seem to have a really engaged, diverse coalition that’s all bought into this,” said Simon, who serves as director of public and government relations at Prime Alternative Treatment Center, in an interview. 

Something old, something new

The main legalization bill being put forward is ambitious: It allows for adults 21 and older to possess and use cannabis as well as grow up to six cannabis plants, according to a framework of the bill released in December. It also authorizes businesses to cultivate cannabis and sell it, and creates a process for the state to license those businesses and tax them under the meals and rooms tax. 

That’s a departure from the last major cannabis bill in the State House. The bill that passed the House in 2022 would have authorized only the state-run liquor stores to sell cannabis products, with the state collecting the profits rather than taxing private businesses. Last year’s effort passed the House but received criticism from legalization advocates, who bristled at the state monopoly over sales. 

This year’s bill adheres closer to a Democratic bill from 2021, House Bill 237, legislation that also allowed home grow and retail sales. But while that bill received primarily Democratic support, the 2023 effort has the backing members of both parties, including conservative libertarians and progressive Democrats alike. 

The bill is different too, Simon noted. Under this year’s bill, the bulk of the money raised would go toward reducing the state’s pension liability – the near $5 billion hole the state is trying to patch up after poor investment returns and funding cuts by the Legislature. Under the framework, 70 percent of revenue would go toward pension liabilities, while the rest would be divided among substance abuse prevention, law enforcement funding to help veterans, small farmers, and to help “impacted communities” “succeed in the cannabis industry.” 

The bill’s advocates say focusing on pension liabilities could provide a boost to cities and towns and reduce property taxes. And they hope it will make the bill more attractive to skeptics in the Senate. 

Meanwhile, while past attempts would have imposed a sales tax on cannabis, this bill utilizes the state’s 8.5 percent meals and rooms tax. That tax, which would be the lowest on cannabis in the country, might shield the bill from criticism from some Republicans that it created a new tax and a bad precedent, Simon said. 

Simon argues including retail options in a cannabis legalization bill is important because it displaces the power of the black market and allows for closer regulation. 

But for other supportive groups, like the ACLU, the retail side of the bill is less important than the simple act of making the drug legal and preventing penalties. New Hampshire decriminalized marijuana in 2017, meaning those caught with it cannot face jail time or a criminal record, but can still be fined by law enforcement.

“We’ve seen over and over again, communities – certain communities – have been over policed and under resourced,” said Frank Knaack, policy director for ACLU-NH. “And so what we’re trying to do with this bill is ensure that not only are we ending prohibition, but also ensuring that some of the revenue is going to help those communities that have been historically over policed and under invested in.”

A shift in the Senate

Whether the bill moves forward will likely depend on the state Senate. The Senate has blocked similar efforts under both Democratic and Republican control. Despite years of bipartisan efforts in the House, a legalization bill has never made it to Sununu’s desk, largely because of rejection in the Senate. 

Legalization supporters say this year could be different. Among the new members joining the Senate are three senators who have either supported legalization efforts when in the House or expressed support: Republicans Howard Pearl of Loudon, Tim Lang of Sanbornton, and Keith Murphy of Manchester. And three former Republican no votes – Bob Giuda, Chuck Morse, and Erin Hennessey – have departed since the last session. Incoming Sen. Daryl Abbas sponsored last year’s liquor commission-centered legalization bill, though has opposed broader legalization efforts in the past. 

The result, supporters say, could be a Senate that sees four to five Republicans join nine Democrats in favor of legalization. That majority – if it materialized – would not meet the 16-vote minimum to override a gubernatorial veto, but could move the legislation out of the Senate and add pressure to Sununu, advocates say.

Yet the past support of some freshmen senators does not guarantee continued support moving forward, particularly in the more closely controlled Senate. 

“This bill could really appear to be an irresistible force but yeah, the Senate sure seems like an immovable object,” Simon said. 

It is not yet clear whether Senate support might shift this year; a spokeswoman for the Senate said Tuesday the senators were waiting to see the final bill language and would not comment. 

And at a press conference Wednesday, Senate President Jeb Bradley said that while he was still waiting to see the final language from the House, he would likely remain a “no” vote.

“There’s some people that probably want to see it legalized and then some like myself that have never voted to legalize it and don’t intend to,” he said. “For reasons that I think are becoming increasingly clear in terms of safety, in terms of its impact on health. So, we’ll see what happens.”

Sununu’s position on legalization has shifted over the years. In 2018, the governor said he would oppose any legalization effort that reached his desk “regardless of what the language looks like”; by 2022, that position had softened. In March 2022, the governor called legalization “inevitable” in New Hampshire. But in October, he reiterated his opposition, telling WMUR “now is not the time.” 

“We still have a massive drug crisis going on across this country,” Sununu said then. “Right now really is not the time. It’s not a ‘never’ thing. But now is not the time.” 

Sununu vetoed a 2019 bill that would have authorized home grow of up to six plants for medical marijuana patients, but he has signed bills decriminalizing marijuana and expanding medical marijuana in other areas.

Meanwhile, some organizations that have been opposed in the past are likely to continue their skepticism. New Futures, an influential health care advocacy group in the state, has advocated against previous legalization efforts. 

This year, the organization has not taken a position on the new bill because the text has not been released. But it has released a set of principles that it says must be adhered to in any legalization efforts, including limits on THC potency and advertising to children, health warnings, storage security requirements, buffer zones between schools and retailers, and racial justice efforts. 

“If New Hampshire moves in the direction of legalizing recreational cannabis through a commercial model, it is imperative to get the policy right from the start,” said Kate Frey, vice president of advocacy at New Futures. 

Advocates are also expecting the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police to raise concerns about potential increases in crime if cannabis is legalized. 

This year, Knaack said, the ACLU plans to speak against those concerns.

“We’re really gonna spend a lot of time educating people that a lot of the fear-based rhetoric that’s been pushed on them is really just made up and not based on reality,” he said. 

GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX

SUPPORT NEWS YOU TRUST.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Ethan DeWitt
Ethan DeWitt

Ethan DeWitt is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s education reporter. Previously, he worked as the New Hampshire State House reporter for the Concord Monitor, covering the state, the Legislature, and the New Hampshire presidential primary. A Westmoreland native, Ethan started his career as the politics and health care reporter at the Keene Sentinel.

MORE FROM AUTHOR