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Cannabis legalization bill unlikely to pass in New Hampshire

A last-minute deal is still possible, but senators signal the proposal is unlikely to pass, leaving the Granite State an island of prohibition in New England

In the House, the bill won support from more than two-thirds of members, including a majority of members in each party’s caucus. Proponents of the bill have hoped that a few new faces in the Senate would tilt the scales in favor of legalization this session.Steven Senne/Associated Press

CONCORD, N.H. — The latest effort to legalize cannabis for recreational use in New Hampshire isn’t dead yet, but its prognosis looks awfully grim.

With a 3-2 vote on Tuesday the Senate Judiciary Committee advised the full Senate to kill House Bill 639, which has been added to the chamber’s agenda for Thursday. Although a last-minute amendment is still possible, multiple senators said they think it’s likely to fail.

The three Republicans who voted against the bill in committee Tuesday did so without saying a word about its contents. One of the two Democrats who voted in the minority, Senator Becky Whitley of Hopkinton, said she was saddened by the lack of discussion.

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Whitley cited polling that shows more than 70 percent of Granite Staters favor marijuana legalization, and she said a broad bipartisan coalition collaborated to draft a bill worthy of thorough consideration.

“Not acting on that, I think, sends a pretty strong message to our constituents,” she said.

Republican Senator Sharon Carson of Londonderry, who serves as the committee’s chairperson, declined to comment on Tuesday’s vote.

“We’ll be on the floor Thursday,” she said. “I’ll talk then.”

This wouldn’t be the first time that a marijuana legalization bill gained steam in the House only to be halted in the Senate. That very scenario has played out repeatedly in past legislative sessions, with Republican and Democratic senators alike voting against legalization.

But this year’s proposal has been particularly popular, with supporters on opposite ends of the political spectrum.

Greg Moore, director of the conservative and libertarian political advocacy group Americans for Prosperity in New Hampshire, said HB 639 takes the right approach by proposing to let private businesses take the lead rather than placing state government at the center of a newly legal cannabis market. The state has historically been a leader in expanding personal freedoms, though it’s been a laggard on cannabis legalization.

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“It’s going to happen. It’s just a matter of time,” Moore said.

Frank Knaack, policy director at the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire, said the state’s continued “war on marijuana” is a waste of money and ruins lives.

“Pushing legalization off yet another year would show that lawmakers are out of step with their constituents and are OK with continuing to needlessly ensnare over a thousand people — disproportionately Black people — in New Hampshire’s criminal justice system every year,” he said.

In the House, the bill won support from more than two-thirds of members, including a majority of members in each party’s caucus. Proponents of the bill have hoped that a few new faces in the Senate would tilt the scales in favor of legalization this session.

One of those new faces, Republican Senator Daryl Abbas of Salem — who backed a cannabis legalization bill last year as a state representative — sits on the Senate Judiciary Committee. But he was absent from Tuesday’s vote, so Republican Senator Ruth Ward of Stoddard stepped in as his substitute.

Abbas, an attorney, told WMUR that he would be unavailable Tuesday due to a trial in Massachusetts. He did not respond to the Globe’s requests for comment in recent days.

Another one of those news faces, Republican Senator Dan Innis of Bradford — who has said he would support cannabis legalization if “the right bill” came along — told the Globe on Friday that he thinks HB 639 will fail this year. But legalization will pass in New Hampshire eventually, he said.

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Innis declined to say how he’ll vote on the bill, noting that he’s seen as “something of a swing vote” on the matter. He said he’s heard from concerned constituents, including those who favor the bill and those who oppose it.

“There’s been some pressure, but I’ve gotten it from both sides,” he said.

Innis said he’s spoken with fellow officials, including Senate President Jeb Bradley and Governor Chris Sununu, who haven’t pressured him either way.

Senator Bill Gannon of Sandown, the third Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, told the Globe after Tuesday’s vote that he opposes HB 639 because legalizing cannabis would be bad for public health, public safety, and the wellbeing of children and teens in the Granite State.

The fact that New Hampshire is surrounded by states that have legalized recreational marijuana doesn’t mean leaders in Concord should follow suit, Gannon said.

“I don’t mind being an island,” he added.

Senator Shannon Chandley of Amherst, the other Democrat on the committee, told the Globe that legalizing cannabis has never been high on her priority list, but HB 639 is a good bill that aligns with what the majority of Granite Staters want.

The bill’s likely demise doesn’t sit well with Timothy Egan, a former state lawmaker who now serves as chair of the New Hampshire Cannabis Association’s board of advisers.

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“I’m frustrated that a well-thought-out, intelligent, bipartisan bill that takes into account all of the concerns — public safety, youth safety, economic development — is being sort of pushed aside,” Egan said, faulting Sununu’s team for their hands-off approach.

“There has been no communication from the governor’s office on what he thinks about this. The coalition would be ready, willing, and able to talk to him, hear his concerns,” Egan said. “What are things that potentially we could try to amend that he would like and we would like? But we have been ignored. I reached out to his legislative director. I’ve received no response.”

When asked last week about marijuana legalization, Sununu told reporters that he still has the same general concerns he’s expressed in the past. Policymakers considering legalization need to focus on public safety and public health impacts, not potential tax revenues, he said.

“You don’t want to legalize drugs for money. That’s just not why you’d do it,” he said. “You’d do it because of harm reduction, the opportunities for citizens.”

If the Senate kills HB 639, it could spark fireworks involving both legislative chambers.

House Majority Leader Jason Osborne, a Republican from Auburn who’s backing cannabis legalization, told WMUR on Monday that senators should remember that a lot of their bills are pending in the House. “It would be a shame if anything were to happen to them,” he said.

After the Senate committee’s vote on Tuesday, Osborne tweeted, “We didn’t start the fire.” When asked by the Globe which Senate bills are at risk of going up in flames, he said, “They’re all fair game in my book.”

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Steven Porter can be reached at steven.porter@globe.com. Follow him @reporterporter.