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New Hampshire senators kill marijuana legalization bill, citing need to protect kids

Several senators said legalizing recreational marijuana for people 21 and older in other states has led to increased cannabis use among children and teens, Democratic Senator Becky Whitley said studies show that’s not the case.

Newly transplanted cannabis cuttings grow in pots at a marijuana cultivation facility in Milford, Mass.Steven Senne/Associated Press

CONCORD, N.H. — Once again a marijuana legalization bill that garnered broad bipartisan support in the New Hampshire House has gone on to die in the Senate.

The state’s upper legislative chamber voted 14-10 on Thursday to kill House Bill 639, which would have allowed retail sales of recreational cannabis products to people 21 and older.

The senators’ primary concern: how legalizing weed for adults might impact the state’s youth.

Republican Senator Bill Gannon of Sandown, who voted to reject the bill, said he doesn’t mind the notion that New Hampshire will continue as an island of prohibition surrounded by states that have rolled out recreational marijuana legalization programs.

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“I for one never want to be like Massachusetts or Vermont. I’d rather resemble the 29 other states who have not passed legalization,” he said. “To those who say we are an anti-marijuana island, I say we are a drug-free oasis.”

Gannon noted that New Hampshire has already decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana, and he said the state should make the medical marijuana program more accessible. But he and several colleagues cited their concern for Granite State children and teens as the basis for their opposition to recreational cannabis.

Democratic Senator Lou D’Allesandro of Manchester said the state is already dealing with a youth mental health crisis and normalizing non-medical marijuana use could exacerbate rising rates of youth depression and anxiety.

“If our children see their parents and other trusted adults using marijuana, it will desensitize them to it and further the false notion that marijuana is safe to consume,” he said.

Democratic Senator Becky Whitley of Hopkinton, one of the bill’s cosponsors, disputed claims that legalizing recreational marijuana for people 21 and older in other states has led to increased cannabis use among children and teens. Studies show that’s not the case, she said. Research published by the Journal of the American Medical Association appears to support her claim that teen cannabis use doesn’t increase after states enact recreational marijuana laws.

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Whitley, who fielded several pointed questions Thursday from her Republican colleagues, said preserving the status quo isn’t a neutral act, considering how enforcement of New Hampshire’s marijuana laws have disparately impacted Black Granite Staters even though white residents use cannabis at a similar rate.

“We have to reckon with the harms that marijuana prohibition has caused in our communities. And we have to come to the table with solutions,” she said. “Our constituents are asking for it.”

D’Allesandro was the only Democrat who voted to kill HB 639. Last year he and Democratic Senator Donna Soucy of Manchester had voted together against a prior legalization effort. But this year Soucy voted with the rest of their Democratic colleagues in an unsuccessful effort to ward off the bill’s defeat.

Although she’s still not an ardent supporter of cannabis legalization, Soucy said her analysis this time around is based partly on concerns about the harms caused by cannabis products from unregulated sources, so legalization can improve safety for a drug that adults in New Hampshire are already using.

The only Republican who voted against killing HB 639 was Senator Keith Murphy of Manchester, who cosponsored the measure.

Several GOP senators who have expressed support for certain marijuana legalization efforts in the past — Daryl Abbas of Salem, Timothy Lang of Sanbornton, Dan Innis of Bradford, and Howard Pearl of Loudon — voted with the bulk of their party’s caucus Thursday to reject the legislation.

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Abbas authored a marijuana legalization bill in the House last session that would have established state-run cannabis stores managed by the New Hampshire Liquor Commission. Lang and Innis have expressed support for that model. (The model proposed by HB 639 would instead have allowed state licensure for privately run retail shops.)

During debate, Pearl said he couldn’t accept a bill that, like HB 639, would allow people to smoke marijuana wherever it’s legal to smoke tobacco products. Schoolchildren who tour the State House shouldn’t have to pass by pot smokers on their way into the building, he said.

While proponents of HB 639 cited polling by the University of New Hampshire that shows more than 70 percent of Granite Staters favor marijuana legalization, opponents of the bill cited polling from Emerson College that shows a majority of Granite Staters support marijuana policy options other than legalization.

Notably, the Emerson poll didn’t ask New Hampshire voters a yes or no question about whether they favor legalization. Instead, it asked respondents to choose from four mutually exclusive options on marijuana policy. A plurality, 47.1 percent, said they would prefer legalization and commercialization. After that, 21.4 percent of respondents said they would prefer to limit legal marijuana for medical purposes; 17.8 percent said they would prefer to keep marijuana illegal federally; and 13.6 percent preferred decriminalization.

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Frank Knaack, policy director at the ACLU of New Hampshire, which supported HB 639, said the Senate’s decision on Thursday continued its “harmful, out-of-touch practice of killing bipartisan, broadly supported legislation to legalize marijuana.”

While proponents of HB 639 argued that New Hampshire is missing out on tax revenue from legal cannabis sales happening just beyond its borders, Republican Senator Carrie Gendreau of Littleton said the state cannot afford to risk the life of any child.

“No amount of revenue that we could earn here in the State of New Hampshire based on an illegal drug is worth it,” she said.


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