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Analysis

An unexpected comment from New Hampshire’s governor changes the calculus on marijuana legalization in the Granite state

Republican Governor Chris Sununu. Photo/Holly Ramer, File)Holly Ramer/Associated Press

New Hampshire is surrounded by states that have legalized marijuana. When Rhode Island makes it legal to buy and sell there, as it is expected to this legislative session, New Hampshire will likely be the only state in New England where cannabis is not legal.

There is a simple reason why the state that holds the nation’s first primary, established the first state lottery, and was one of the first to pass same-sex marriage into law has been a hold out on this issue: For decades, every New Hampshire governor has vowed to veto it.

This has been especially true in the last six years. States have been legalizing marijuana at a fast clip in recent years, and especially since Governor Sununu was first elected in 2016. But no matter the partisan makeup of the huge New Hampshire legislature, Sununu’s steadfastness to veto any legalization bill has been the reason why there has not been serious money or efforts behind the bills filed each year that would add New Hampshire to the list.

But that could be changing.

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Speaking to the New England Council last week, Sununu gave an off-the-cuff response to a question where, for the first time publicly, he significantly softened his stance, especially as it relates to a specific bill being debated in the legislature.

Sununu reiterated that he is “not pro-legalization,” but conceded, “I think it’s going to ultimately happen in New Hampshire, it could be inevitable.”

And if marijuana legalization is inevitable, Sununu contended, then way best way to do it is the method outlined in House Bill 1598, under which the state would exclusively sell it, the same way New Hampshire currently does with alcohol.

“If you are ever going to do it, do that bill,” said Sununu. “Is now the right time? I am not sure yet.”

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Importantly, Sununu didn’t vow to veto it, as he has with other bills like this in the past. Instead, he said he was “looking at it closely.”

If Sununu were to actually sign a bill like this into law, it would be one of the most politically advantageous flip-flops in modern state politics.

In his remarks, Sununu acknowledged changing attitudes around the issue. And they have certainly changed in New Hampshire, where polls over the years have found marijuana legalization to be popular, but now really popular.

For example, a University of New Hampshire poll released two weeks ago found that 68 percent of residents supported the concepts in that specific bill. Further, 74 percent of residents supported the legalization of marijuana in general, with just 15 percent opposed. (Some opponents of this specific bill want legalization, but don’t want the state to control all sales.) When Sununu was first elected, 61 percent supported legalization.

While New Hampshire residents like the idea, there is a partisan divide. The poll found 67 percent of Democrats strongly backing legalization versus just 47 percent of Republicans.

Here is where politics get interesting. While the issue is very popular among Democrats, none of the state’s top Democratic leaders support legalization for adult recreational use, including either US representative, either US senator, or the Democratic leader in the state senate. (While US Representative Annie Kuster has not declared she is for legalization federally, she hasn’t opposed related bills.)

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Indeed, partly due to state Senate minority leader Donna Soucy’s opposition to legalization, the bill, HB 1598, which passed the House, appears like it will die in the Senate before even ending up on Sununu’s desk.

If it did end up on his desk, it is unclear what he would do and that is notable given his past opposition. In August, he signed a bill that allowed for those dealing with opioid addiction to use marijuana medically. In 2017, he signed a bill into law that decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana. But in 2019, he vetoed a bill that would allow residents to legally home grow their own plants.

It’s all especially interesting given that he hasn’t ruled out a run for president.


James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him @jamespindell and on Instagram @jameswpindell.