Chances of marijuana legalization in NH appear to dim

Jeff Chiu/AP file photo


The Keene Sentinel

Published: 05-29-2024 9:49 AM

Differences in the N.H. House and Senate versions of a marijuana-legalization bill are so significant that the legislation may be doomed, lawmakers said Tuesday.

State Rep. Jonah Wheeler, D-Peterborough, doesn't think New Hampshire will quickly join the rest of New England in allowing adults to use the drug recreationally. 

“In all likelihood, cannabis legalization does not happen this year. I think that’s what people are going to have to come to terms with,” said Wheeler, one of the co-sponsors of House Bill 1633.

On Thursday, the House will consider concurring with the Senate’s version of the bill and sending it to Republican Gov. Chris Sununu for him to consider signing into law. 

But they could also non-concur and kill it, or non-concur and send it to a committee of conference composed of lawmakers from each chamber who would try to arrive at a compromise. 

Wheeler said the House will likely support creating a committee of conference, but he doesn't think the panel would be able to resolve differences between the House and the Senate.    

“The House voting for a committee of conference is more of a formality than anything else with the Senate being the way it is,” he said.

The Senate passed its bill, 14-10, on May 23, but added legislative language that the House had previously rejected. Several senators argued vehemently against legalization on grounds that it would harm public health and safety.

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Rep. Anita Burroughs, D-Glen, is another co-sponsor of HB 1633, which the House passed, 239-136, on April 11. Supporters say the drug is already prevalent in the state and that legalization would allow the state to better regulate it and realize some revenue from its sale. 

“I did kind of a loosey-goosey survey not too long ago, and I found at least 50 of my Democratic colleagues are going to vote to non-concur, and I think there are more Republicans who are going to non-concur,” Burroughs said. “If I was a betting person, I would say a majority are going to non-concur.

“I will support a committee of conference because if there’s a way we can salvage it, I’m all for it, but frankly I’m not optimistic.”

Wheeler said the Senate has put too many regulations in the legislation.

“The legislation is not consistent with the opinions of Granite Staters. That’s my main objection to the Senate version,” he said. “This is a very restrictive model that would be hard to change in the end.”

Senate President Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, who opposes legalization, would appoint Senate members of the committee of conference. House Speaker Sherm Packard, R-Londonderry, would appoint the House members.

The committee would need to unanimously support a compromise bill before it could be voted on again in each chamber, and, potentially, then be sent to Sununu. 

Among the differences: 

* The House version of the bill would allow possession of up to 4 ounces of marijuana, double the Senate's limit.

* The House version would go into effect upon passage, while the Senate set an effective date of Jan. 1, 2026.

* A second offense for smoking or vaping marijuana in public would be a violation subject to a $500 fine under the House version, while the Senate would make this a misdemeanor with a punishment that could include jail time.

* The Senate version puts a hard limit of 15 on the number of retail marijuana outlets, while the House would allow that number to be expanded depending on demand. 

Devon Chaffee, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire, said she would like to see legalization go through this year even if the legislation is “not perfect.”

“It remains critical that we enact legislation to ensure that people are no longer fined or put in jail for activities that 74 percent of Granite Staters believe should be legal,” she said.

“By passing HB 1633, we commit the state to stop the approximately 1,000 marijuana possession arrests annually, most of which impact Black Granite Staters disproportionally, and end the ensnarement of people in the criminal justice system which has direct, life-ruining collateral harms.”

Backers of the Senate version of the bill say the language in the measure is designed to meet the approval of Sununu, who has said he would only support legalization if the state maintains strict control over sales and marketing.