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Sununu signals pivot for New England’s last ‘dry’ state on marijuana

Famously libertarian New Hampshire now stands alone in prohibiting pot

New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu, seen here at a 2021 event in Manchester, has signaled he is open to reviewing a marijuana legalization law.Elise Amendola/Associated Press

New Hampshire has long sold itself as a place where one can “live free,” a mantra that among other policies has translated into ultra-low taxes and minimal restrictions on personal behavior — it’s a state where residents are not even required to purchase auto insurance or wear seat belts.

Marijuana, however, stands as a notable exception to the state’s famously libertarian image.

On Wednesday, when Rhode Island Governor Daniel J. McKee signed a long-debated bill legalizing cannabis in his state, New Hampshire officially became the last jurisdiction in New England that still prohibits the use and possession of small amounts of marijuana.

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While the state has decriminalized the drug and oversees a limited medical marijuana market for patients with certain conditions, several bipartisan attempts by New Hampshire’s 400-seat House of Representatives to legalize it — including a bill calling for state-run pot shops — have all died in the more conservative 24-member Senate or on the desk of Republican Governor Chris Sununu.

A longtime staunch opponent of legalization, Sununu in 2019 vetoed a bill that would have allowed medical marijuana patients to grow six plants at home, and in 2018 he enlisted the help of a national anti-legalization group to campaign against the policy “regardless of what the language looks like,” citing the opioid crisis.

But suddenly, Sununu is whistling a very different tune, even if it’s not exactly “Smoke Two Joints.”

Earlier this year, he surprised observers by saying legalization was probably “inevitable,” and that he would prefer a state-run model over alternatives. Now, in a Friday statement to the Globe, Sununu’s office claimed he has actually outflanked Democrats on the popular issue, the clearest signal yet that the governor is pivoting away from his earlier opposition.

“The governor’s administration has been more progressive on the issues surrounding marijuana reform than any other governor in New Hampshire history,” a spokesman said in the statement. “After years of inaction by Democrat governors, Chris Sununu signed commonsense decriminalization, expanded access to medical marijuana, and provided a pathway to annul old convictions for marijuana possession. The legislature has never sent a legalization bill to the governor’s desk — it’s failed in the Senate repeatedly, in both Republican-held years and Democrat-held years.”

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The spokesman stopped short of saying Sununu would sign a legalization bill, promising only that he would review any legislation if the two chambers “reach consensus and compromise.”

Still, the apparent softening of his stance is giving hope to advocates in New Hampshire, who said they have been exasperated by the government’s inaction, especially in light of the state’s supposedly libertarian values and polls showing strong public support among residents.

A recent University of New Hampshire study found clear majorities of Republican, Democrat, and independent voters favored legalization and pegged overall approval in the state at 74 percent.

“There are so few issues in this political era where there is such obvious, broad bipartisan agreement, and when you find one of those points, you should embrace it,” said Steve Marchand, a Democrat who ran for governor in 2016 and 2018 on a pro-legalization platform. “How on earth could a state whose slogan is ‘live free’ be the one state in the entire northeast of America that hasn’t legalized cannabis? It’s ridiculous.”

People from other states are often incredulous when they learn that New Hampshire hasn’t legalized marijuana, Marchand added.

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“I show them the map where we’re this one red state in a sea of green states stretching hundreds of miles that have legalized [marijuana],” he said. “If we’re not careful, ‘live free’ will go from philosophy to shtick.”

Even before last week, New Hampshire was surrounded by “legalized” neighbors, including Canada, where provincial governments since 2018 have been selling pot out of state-run liquor stores — not unlike those along New Hampshire’s highways.

It is an open secret that many New Hampshire residents routinely travel to licensed dispensaries in Massachusetts and Maine (and before long, Vermont) to stock up, leading to an outflux of potential revenue. And in the meantime, hundreds of residents continue to be arrested for marijuana crimes each year, with the New Hampshire ACLU recently finding vast racial disparities in how New Hampshire’s prohibition on the drug is enforced.

Lacking a mechanism for ballot initiatives like those that legalized cannabis in Massachusetts and Maine, legalization proponents in New Hampshire have been forced to bring their fight to the State House. Progress has been slow, with a number of senators who oppose legalization — including a handful of Democrats — easily winning reelection, and the discourse frequently devolving into what one supporter called “retro reefer madness.”

National pro-cannabis groups such as the Marijuana Policy Project have reduced their presence in New Hampshire in recent years, figuring no legalization bill would become law until the makeup of the Senate changed or a new governor was elected.

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“This is my 15th year dealing with the New Hampshire legislature on cannabis policy, and it’s just been one frustration after another,” said Matt Simon, a longtime MPP advocate who now lobbies for Prime ATC, a medical dispensary firm. “Nowhere is the disconnect between public and political opinion more enormous than in New Hampshire. It’s embarrassing to just about everybody except the New Hampshire Senate.”

Senate President Chuck Morse did not respond to a request for comment.

Christopher Galdieri, a professor of politics at Saint Anselm College, said marijuana is simply not a deal-breaker issue for most New Hampshire voters, even if they strongly support legalization — one explanation for the disparity.

“A lot of folks think it would be nice, but I don’t know if that means they get out of bed with this as a top issue and contact their legislators five times a week,” he said.

Still, Galdieri acknowledged, New Hampshire’s reluctance to legalize seems increasingly out of step, opening opportunity for one party or the other to seize on the issue.

“As more and more states do it, there’s a risk of New Hampshire looking like one of those counties in Arkansas that are still dry and you can’t buy a drink,” he said.

For marijuana consumers and patients in New Hampshire, the news from Rhode Island last week simply underlined longstanding frustrations.

“It’s yet another moment of feeling defeated,” said Heather Marie Brown, a 45-year-old medical marijuana patient from Barnstead, N.H. “We’re first in the nation for a lot of things, but when it comes to cannabis we’re a pathetic excuse. We have some very uneducated, older legislators that are still stuck in that prohibition mindset and think cannabis is going to make you go crazy.”

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Looking forward, Brown and other supporters are hoping this year’s elections will yield a more sympathetic Senate that’s willing to walk through the door cracked open by Sununu’s recent comments.

“This should not be a taboo subject in New Hampshire anymore,” Brown said. “I’m honestly begging our legislators to do the job they were put in office to do and represent the majority of the people. There is absolutely no need for cannabis to still be illegal. Just look around you.”


Dan Adams can be reached at daniel.adams@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Adams86.