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First-time drug offenses that are currently treated as felonies under New Hampshire law could be reclassified as misdemeanors, as advocates and lawmakers push back against the ill effects of the war on drugs.
The proposal, House Bill 473, was up for a hearing April 20 before the Senate Judiciary Committee, where lawmakers heard testimony from the bill’s boosters and critics.
Representative Erica Layon, a Republican from Derry, said the bill is consistent with the state’s broader efforts to reduce stigma and give people a path to a better life.
“When you’re a felon, it’s hard to get a home. It’s hard to rent. It’s hard to do so many things when you have a felony conviction on your record,” she said. “If we want people to be able to re-enter society after a mistake, this bill … is a good opportunity.”
Lily Jackson, a campaign strategist for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire, called on senators to approve the legislation, just as their colleagues in the House did last month. Harsh criminal sentences don’t deter crime or drug use, and New Hampshire’s drug laws have been enforced with a “staggering racial bias,” she said.
Jackson testified that Black people represent just 1.8 percent of New Hampshire’s population but 5.7 percent of all drug arrests in the past five years.
“Reclassifying drug possession as a misdemeanor offense provides an opportunity to begin to address the disproportionate harms that New Hampshire’s criminal justice system has on Black and brown people,” she said.
But the bill faces opposition from law enforcement.
Bedford police chief John Bryfonski spoke against the bill on behalf of the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police. He said revising the law in this way would “hamstring” prosecutors, who currently have the flexibility to downgrade charges when appropriate.
“This bill would give drug traffickers, who are selling illicit drugs that are contributing to the carnage here in the Granite State with respect to drug overdoses and drug overdose fatalities, a free pass, a misdemeanor pass,” Bryfonski said.
This proposal would not affect charges for possession of small amounts of marijuana, which New Hampshire already decriminalized. But the change would be significant for possession of hard drugs like heroin and cocaine.