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Sununu signals support for legalizing marijuana ‘the right way’ after latest N.H. bill defeated

The governor’s stated preference for state-run stores has skeptics in the Granite State who prefer a free-market approach

New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu speaks during an Executive Council meeting at the State House, March 22, 2023.Cheryl Senter/Cheryl Senter for the Boston Glo

The day after the New Hampshire Senate again rejected a bill that would have legalized recreational marijuana, Governor Chris Sununu said the defeated measure “was not the right path for our state.”

In a statement, Sununu acknowledged that every other state in New England has legalized recreational pot. Although he has historically expressed reticence about New Hampshire following the lead of its neighbors, he announced Friday that he’s willing to sign a future bill to legalize marijuana, but it must follow a model that gives the state control of distribution and access.

“Knowing that a majority of our residents support legalization, it is reasonable to assume change is inevitable. To ignore this reality would be shortsighted and harmful,” Sununu said. “That is why, with the right policy and framework in place, I stand ready to sign a legalization bill that puts the State of N.H. in the drivers seat, focusing on harm reduction — not profits.”

Sununu is calling for a marijuana legalization model that resembles the way the New Hampshire Liquor Commission already controls alcohol sales in the state. By having the government handle marketing, sales, and distribution, the state helps to keep harmful substances away from kids, he said.

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“The state would not impose any taxes, and should control all messaging, avoiding billboards, commercials, and digital ads that bombard kids on a daily basis,” he said.

The state-run model has its skeptics, even among those who favor legalization.

Greg Moore, director of the conservative and libertarian political advocacy group Americans for Prosperity in New Hampshire, said it looks like Sununu recognizes that legalization is inevitable and wants to participate in that policymaking.“That said, there are a number of significant challenges with proceeding down the state store model that could seriously undermine the ability to have a functional marketplace,” Moore told the Globe.There are a lot of open questions about how a state-run model would work, especially since cannabis still can’t be transported across state lines, Moore said. Would the state government grow its own product or work with private growers? And why, he said, would a private investor get involved in a grow operation when the only buyer can set rates unilaterally?

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“Do we really want to have state employees selling something that is still explicitly illegal at the federal level?” he added.

The AFP of New Hampshire backed the recently defeated cannabis legalization bill as part of a broad and ideologically diverse coalition that also included the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire.

Frank Knaack, policy director at the ACLU of New Hampshire, said lawmakers should move swiftly to legalize cannabis now that Sununu has committed to signing such legislation.

“We agree wholeheartedly that the core of marijuana legalization is about harm reduction, particularly for communities unjustly targeted by the war on drugs that get needlessly ensnared in New Hampshire’s criminal legal system every year,” Knaack said.

Sununu’s announcement, which offered a broad policy sketch without the details of a formal legislative proposal, came less than 24 hours after the Senate defeated a detailed bill that had won support from a majority of both party’s caucuses in the House. Proponents of the bill had expressed frustration over a lack of input from the governor’s office.

“It is disappointing that the Governor could not work with the Legislature, let alone his own party, to advocate for legalizing cannabis until after the Senate had already killed a bill that could have been the path forward on legalization,” senators Donna Soucy of Manchester and Becky Whitley of Hopkinton said Friday in a joint statement.

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Soucy and Whitley, the Democratic leader and assistant leader in the Senate, said Sununu should take a meaningful role in governing the state rather than “simply positioning himself to run for higher office.”

At the start of this legislative session, Sununu had predicted that a marijuana legalization bill would not reach his desk. He reiterated his general concerns about legalization last week, though he acknowledged the possibility of legalizing cannabis with a focus on harm reduction, not money.

The shift in Sununu’s stance comes as he mulls a possible bid for the GOP presidential nomination, a decision he’s expected to finalize within the next several weeks.

Proponents of the legalization bill alluded earlier this week to Sununu’s looming decision as a possible factor shaping his approach to cannabis policy. Whitley said she hoped Sununu would “put aside his political ambitions” and support the bill. Timothy Egan, who chairs the New Hampshire Cannabis Association’s board of advisers, expressed frustration that the bill “is being sort of pushed aside at the whims of probably someone who has an interest to run for president.”

In a statement Friday, New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley accused Sununu of playing “blatant and crass political games” that reflect a pattern of poor leadership.

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“His sudden show of support for marijuana legalization is nothing more than political posturing, given that he waited until the Senate had already voted down the latest proposal,” Buckley said.

“He repeatedly opts for political convenience over principled leadership, remaining conspicuously silent until after pivotal moments have passed,” Buckley added. “By the time he steps in, it’s too late for his words to have any real impact on policy outcomes.”

A spokesperson for Sununu did not respond Friday to the Globe’s request for comment.

Although several GOP senators have expressed support for certain marijuana legalization efforts in the past, only one Republican cast a vote Thursday in defense of House Bill 639, which would have allowed privately owned cannabis stores. The other 13 Republicans and one Democrat voted to kill the bill.

In his announcement, Sununu vowed to veto any future bill that excludes provisions outlined in his preferred approach.

“I am supportive of legalizing marijuana in the right way — with this legislature — rather than risk a poorly thought out framework that inevitably could pass under future governors or legislatures,” he said.

House Majority Leader Jason Osborne, a Republican from Auburn, signed onto HB 639 this year despite his reservations about imposing so much taxation and regulation rather than simply allowing marijuana. He told WMUR on Friday that HB 639 had “the right amount of compromise,” but lawmakers might yet manage to pass a bill that meets Sununu’s expectations.

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“We’ll see if he can get done what he wants. I don’t know that House members are ready to do it, after they just tried last year and the Senate really didn’t even want to talk about it,” Osborne told WMUR. “I do think that it could get done this year if the Senate were to send it back to us for a concurrence. If they try to wait ‘til next year, I doubt it.”

A separate stripped-down proposal to legalize marijuana, House Bill 360, is still pending, though the Senate Judiciary Committee has already recommended that the full Senate kill that bill, too.

Even setting aside those who may disagree with Sununu’s preferred path to marijuana legalization, there are state senators who continue to oppose legalization in principle, citing fears about its impact on children.

“Recreationalizing marijuana at this critical juncture would send a confusing message, potentially exacerbating the already perilous drug landscape and placing more lives at risk,” Senate President Jeb Bradley, a Republican and friend of Sununu’s, said in a statement Thursday. “Now is not the appropriate time to divert our attention away from addressing the pressing challenges posed by the drug crisis.”

This story has been updated with additional information throughout.


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