Commission to study state-run cannabis retail model moves ahead

By: - August 9, 2023 2:09 pm
Hands holding a pot leaf

Cannabis use and possession is currently not legal in New Hampshire. (Getty Images)

New Hampshire lawmakers and stakeholders will explore a state-run approach to legalizing retail cannabis in the coming months, after Gov. Chris Sununu signed a bill creating a study commission.  

House Bill 611, signed into law Tuesday, establishes a commission to look into how New Hampshire might legalize cannabis and allow it to be sold through state-owned establishments. 

The approach would be unique to New Hampshire. Other states that have legalized retail cannabis have allowed private businesses to sell cannabis products themselves. But the state-run model is the only one Sununu has said he would sign into law as governor. 

Cannabis use and possession is currently not legal in New Hampshire. The state decriminalized the possession of up to three-quarters of an ounce of cannabis in 2017; anyone caught with amounts less than that may be fined but not arrested. 

Since taking office in 2017, Sununu has opposed efforts by the Legislature to legalize cannabis, arguing that the state is not ready to legalize and that doing so could exacerbate the state’s opioid crisis. But in May, shortly after a legalization bill was killed by the Senate, the governor changed that position and said he would approve a legalization approach in which the state controlled the regulation and sale of all legal cannabis products – similar to the approach used to sell hard alcohol through the New Hampshire Liquor Commission. Lawmakers quickly amended HB 611 to add language creating a study commission for the governor’s request.

The commission will include five senators and five House representatives, as well as members representing the Attorney General’s Office; the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police; the New Hampshire Bankers Association; the New Hampshire Liquor Commission; the American Civil Liberties Union; the New Hampshire Medical Society; and Communities for Alcohol and Drug-Free Youth. The commission will also be required to consult with the state’s Alternative Treatment Centers, which currently dispense therapeutic cannabis in the state, and the New Hampshire Cannabis Association, which has advocated for legalization.

That group will need to meet through the summer and fall to study and recommend a model that allows full state control of sales and distribution, includes controls to prevent kids from accessing cannabis, provides for municipal control over whether to allow retail establishments within their borders, and prevents “marijuana miles,” or geographic areas with a high concentration of cannabis retail stores. 

Under the new law, the commission must file a report with its findings and recommendations by Dec. 1. 

To be signed by Sununu, those recommendations will need to be turned into legislation and acted upon in the 2024 legislative session. The governor announced in July that he is not running for re-election next year. 

While Sununu has pointed to the state-run model as the best approach for controlling cannabis sales, the proposal has frustrated longtime legalization advocates, who argue it will create a monopoly that will force cannabis growers in New Hampshire to accept the prices set by the state. And some have criticized the approach for not providing economic justice to communities that have been disproportionately impacted by cannabis prohibition, including Black Granite Staters. 

HB 611 also reduces the barriers for patients with chronic pain to get access to therapeutic cannabis. 

Under current law, people with chronic pain may be prescribed cannabis only if they have tried other medication and not been helped by it. The bill signed this week will remove that requirement and allow chronic pain patients to be prescribed cannabis directly. That measure takes effect Oct. 8.

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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. Email: [email protected]