Although lawmakers in New Hampshire won’t pass a bill to legalize recreational cannabis this year, they are grinding away at plans that might gain traction next year.
They gave a study commission until Dec. 1 to recommend a path forward, with an implied mission to satisfy the demands of Governor Chris Sununu, who dropped his opposition to legalization in May. Sununu, a Republican, signaled support for a model that would give the state control over marijuana distribution, marketing, and more.
The commission, which will meet Tuesday for the fifth time, has its work cut out for it. Cannabis legalization bills have repeatedly passed in the New Hampshire House only to die in the Senate amid deep-rooted concerns about impacts on public health and safety, particularly for children and teens.
“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,” Democratic Senator Lou D’Allesandro of Manchester said in May, when the Senate voted 14-10 to kill a legalization bill.
Those concerns won’t be easily allayed. Still, Sununu has said his preferred approach would protect kids by giving the state tight reins on cannabis products and messaging as well. His stance has its skeptics, including those who oppose legalization in principle and those who would prefer a freer-market approach. But it has believers, too.
Jacob T. Borodovsky, PhD, a senior research scientist at Dartmouth’s Center for Technology and Behavioral Health, said Sununu seems to have the right idea about striking a balance to protect public health. While the blanket criminalization of cannabis has been harmful and should end, a purely laissez-faire approach to drug policy would be harmful as well for individuals and society alike, Borodovsky said.
“There’s no correct answer. There’s only trade-offs,” he said. “And the trade-offs that you’re willing to accept depend on the values of the community that is making these decisions.”
This decision-making process isn’t happening in a vacuum, of course. On the one hand, New Hampshire is surrounded by states that have legalized recreational cannabis for adults 21 and older. On the other, federal law still considers marijuana illegal nationwide. So in addition to debating what’s best for Granite Staters, lawmakers are also discussing how to position the state competitively within the region and limit potential civil and criminal liability.
New Hampshire Liquor Commission chairman Joseph W. Mollica told the legislative study commission in September the state could adopt a franchise system that would be both profitable and “unique.” Individually owned retail cannabis stores would act as franchisees while the commission serves as franchisor, he said. Rather than collecting a sales tax, the franchisees would pay 15 percent of their gross sales to the state.
Myles Matteson, head of the criminal justice bureau in the New Hampshire Department of Justice, told the study commission in October the “uniqueness” of a state’s cannabis rules could invite scrutiny and “create unique liabilities,” especially if the enforcement priorities of federal prosecutors were to shift.
The study commission’s 19 members include a variety of lawmakers and outside stakeholders, including Mollica, Matteson, D’Allesandro, and two senators who voted to kill the bill in May but who have supported certain legalization proposals in the past.
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