CONCORD, N.H. — Proponents of a push to allow recreational marijuana in New Hampshire are expressing optimism after more than two-thirds of state representatives voted in favor of an updated legalization bill on April 6.
The measure, House Bill 639, now heads to the Senate, where its odds are far from certain. In past sessions, cannabis legalization efforts that passed the House have died in the Senate, so the legislative forecast this year remains cloudy with a chance of déjà vu — especially since current Senate leaders have reiterated their concerns about the impacts legalization could have on public health and safety.
Still, proponents remain hopeful. There are new faces in the Senate who might tilt the scales in favor of legalization, and the new bill is particularly popular. It won support from a majority of House members in each party’s caucus.
Senator Keith Murphy, a Republican from Manchester who’s cosponsoring HB 639, is among the handful of freshmen who could give the legislation a fighting chance in the Senate. He was elected in District 16, taking the place of former Senator Kevin Cavanaugh, a Democrat who voted last year to kill a marijuana legalization bill.
Murphy is among at least five GOP senators who have expressed support for marijuana legalization in one form or another. If they agree with at least eight Democrats on details of the bill, then they could form a majority in the 24-seat chamber to pass the bill.
Murphy estimates that HB 639 has a 50-50 shot of passing the Senate, meaning its odds are “still up in the air,” according to his legislative aide, Pete Mulvey. But Murphy believes those odds “are likely as good as they have ever been,” Mulvey added.
Murphy said it doesn’t make sense for New Hampshire to continue prohibiting something that’s available for legal purchase under state law in neighboring Massachusetts, Maine, and Vermont.
“Prohibition has proven over and over to be a failed public policy. It is especially ineffective when all of our surrounding states have already legalized marijuana possession and use,” he said in a statement.
The bill’s other cosponsors include Democratic senators Becky Whitley of Hopkinton and Donovan Fenton of Keene.
Fenton, a freshman whose predecessor favored legalization, said proponents are hopeful they can make their case successfully in the Senate, especially considering the overwhelming support the bill got in the House. But circumstances can shift unexpectedly, he noted.
“It’s a fickle business we’re in,” he said.
A year ago, the Senate voted 15-9 to kill a marijuana legalization bill the House had passed. Since then, nine new senators have taken their seats, replacing five who rejected last year’s bill. But just because a senator supported or opposed that bill last year doesn’t mean they will land on the same side for HB 639 this year. The details differ.
This year’s proposal would allow retail sales of recreational cannabis products to people 21 and older. It would also allow people to possess, use, transport, and gift up to 4 ounces of cannabis in plant form, up to 20 grams of concentrated cannabis products, and other products with up to 2,000 milligrams of THC, the primary psychoactive compound in cannabis.
The bill’s proponents said it would impose a relatively low tax to drive demand for legal products in New Hampshire and combat the illicit market. An earlier draft would have imposed a 15 percent tax on gross revenue from cultivators, but the updated proposal that passed the House now calls for a 12.5 percent tax at the wholesale level on products in their final form.
Comparing one state’s cannabis taxes to its neighbors gets complicated. All three of the states that border New Hampshire impose an excise tax on a percentage of retail sales, but they also each impose at least one additional type of tax, according to research by the Tax Policy Center at the Urban Institute and Brookings Institution:
- Massachusetts imposes price-based excise taxes of 10.75 percent at the state level and up to 3 percent at the local level, plus a 6.25 percent general state sales tax;
- Maine charges a 10 percent price-based state excise tax, plus a weight-based tax on products at the cultivation level; and
- Vermont charges a 14 percent price-based state excise tax, plus a 6 percent state sales tax, and local governments can choose to impose an additional tax of their own.
Calculations by the Tax Policy Center suggest that overall cannabis taxes are higher in Maine than they are in Massachusetts or Vermont.
Timothy Egan, a former state lawmaker who now serves as chair of the NH Cannabis Association’s board of advisers, said the 12.5 percent wholesale tax proposed in New Hampshire would be lower than other New England states. By taxing at the wholesale level, New Hampshire would give retailers enough flexibility to compete on price, he said.
The NH Cannabis Association estimates that New Hampshire could bring in more than $25 million in marijuana tax revenue in 2025, more than $50 million in 2026, and more than $85 million in 2027 if this bill becomes law.
That tax revenue would be used to reduce the amount of money towns contribute to education funding through property taxes, to fund the state’s retirement system, and to support substance abuse prevention and recovery services. The bill would also establish a commission tasked with testing and regulating cannabis products sold in New Hampshire.
The bill also leaves room for municipalities to limit or even ban cannabis retail stores through local ordinance.
Polling by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center suggests that marijuana legalization is a popular idea. More than seven in 10 Granite Staters said earlier this year that they support legalization, including majorities of Democrats, independents, and Republicans.
Even if HB 639 passes the Senate, it could still be vetoed by Governor Chris Sununu, a Republican who has historically expressed reservations about the idea, citing an ongoing drug crisis and a need to make sure that any legalization policy comes with sufficient safeguards.