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‘Live free or die, but don’t touch that plant’: A clash over marijuana in New Hampshire

Governor Chris Sununu staunchly opposes marijuana legalization, declaring it “the next major battle.”
Governor Chris Sununu staunchly opposes marijuana legalization, declaring it “the next major battle.”(John Blanding/Globe Staff/File 2017)

Live free or die.

Unless, that is, your idea of freedom involves marijuana.

New Hampshire’s libertarian streak has long been a source of pride for residents, but for cannabis users, that self-image isn’t living up to reality. With pot legalization sweeping through New England, New Hampshire is now an island of prohibition.

“The only thing libertarian about our state is the motto,” said Greg Raymond, 30, a ski resort server in Whitefield. “Now it’s become an embarrassing motto: ‘Live free or die, but don’t touch that plant.’ ”

Even as carloads of New Hampshire residents head to Massachusetts, where five recreational pot stores have opened since November, Governor Chris Sununu is staunchly opposing legalization, declaring it “the next major battle,” and recruiting a lobbyist to help him spread the message that legal pot would hurt the state’s efforts to fight its devastating opioid crisis.

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“What we are facing in the next six months is the most significant, substantive change potentially to the negative, I believe . . . to what we’ve been doing” on the opioid front, Sununu told a state drug-abuse panel on Dec. 14, according to the Concord Monitor. “The states who have fallen to it kind of have not pushed back strongly on it.”

Sununu’s spokesman did not make him available for an interview or respond to multiple requests for comment.

Unlike Rhode Island, whose governor recently said the tiny state could be driven by peer pressure into legalizing the drug soon, Sununu wants to hold out against the rising political tide. New Hampshire is surrounded by Vermont, Canada, Maine, and Massachusetts — all of which have legalized marijuana.

Though it’s a relatively short drive for New Hampshire residents to get to a place where they could lawfully purchase marijuana, it’s a federal crime to bring the drug across state lines.

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Next month, control of the New Hampshire House and Senate will shift to Democrats, whose platform calls for cannabis legalization.

State Representative Renny Cushing, a Democrat, has proposed a bill that would legalize and regulate marijuana. The measure is cosponsored by 11 other lawmakers, including Senator John Reagan, a Republican, and Senator Martha Hennessey, a Democrat.

Sununu has vowed to veto any legalization bill that comes to his desk, so lawmakers in each chamber would need a two-thirds majority to override him.

“That will be the battle,” said Matt Simon, a Manchester resident and New England political director with the Marijuana Policy Project. “It’s in the realm of possibility. The governor seems to agree, which is why he says he’s waging this campaign.”

To keep marijuana illegal, Sununu has enlisted national antimarijuana activist Kevin Sabet, a former White House drug policy analyst who founded Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a group that advocates against legalization.

Sabet said he will work with Sununu to publicize his message that cannabis today is more potent and addictive than “your grandpa’s marijuana” and that legalization is being pushed by companies that seek profits over health and safety.

“We know that Big Tobacco and Big Pharma are morphing into Big Marijuana, so we’re going to be working together to get that information out to the citizens of New Hampshire,” Sabet said. “At a time when New Hampshire is grappling with the opioid crisis, the last thing the state needs is more access to more drugs.”

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New Hampshire ranks second in the country for opioid overdose deaths, with a rate nearly triple the US average, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. In 2016, 437 people died of opioid overdoses — three times 2013’s death toll, a rise that experts attribute to fentanyl, a potent synthetic opioid.

Sununu, a Republican and at 44 the nation’s youngest governor, has aligned himself with law enforcement and the state’s police chiefs, who this month voted overwhelmingly to oppose legalization.

“In our eyes, it’s still a gateway drug and it’s not something that I want my child or grandchild going, ‘Oh, it’s OK now,’ ” said Pat Sullivan, executive director of the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police. “We have a huge opioid crisis. Not everyone that uses marijuana turns to opioids, but I would guess that the vast majority of people addicted to opioids may have started with marijuana.”

Research has shown a correlation between marijuana legalization and a reduction of opioid use. Two papers published in April in the Journal of the American Medical Association analyzed more than five years of federal prescription data and found that states that legalized marijuana saw drops in daily opioid doses and prescriptions. In 2014, a JAMA paper reported that states with medical marijuana had nearly 25 percent fewer opioid overdose deaths. New Hampshire began opening medical dispensaries in 2016, and the state’s medical cannabis program has about 7,120 patients enrolled.

Simon, with the Marijuana Policy Project, said legalization would have a positive effect on the opioid crisis because some drug users find cannabis eases withdrawal symptoms. Plus, he said, fewer pot smokers would be going to drug dealers, where they could be introduced to harder drugs.

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“Marijuana’s already ubiquitous in New Hampshire, and it’s completely unregulated,” Simon said. “This would take hundreds of millions of dollars out of criminals’ pockets and divert them into a regulated marketplace where it would create jobs and produce tax revenue.”

Currently in New Hampshire, marijuana possession up to three-quarters of an ounce is decriminalized — punishable with a fine.

Nearly all the states, including Massachusetts, that have legalized marijuana have done so through voter ballot initiatives. New Hampshire’s political system does not allow for that option, Simon said. This year, Vermont became the first state to pass legalization — just possession, not retail sales, regulation, or taxes — through a legislature.

New Hampshire’s political isolation on the issue is notable considering that in 2014, the state’s House became the first legislative chamber nationwide to pass a cannabis legalization bill. It later died in the Senate.

The issue is gaining political momentum, said Steve Marchand, a Democrat and former Portsmouth mayor who twice ran for governor against Sununu.

When Marchand first ran in 2016 and supported legal marijuana, “People thought I had two heads,” he said. “In the last two years, there’s been a realization on the part of many politicians across the aisle that not only was it good public policy, but it was politically a comfortable place to go.”

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House Speaker Steve Shurtleff, a Democrat, said the chamber would have the votes to override a Sununu veto, and he predicted the Senate would, too. He said the governor should quit fighting and spend the next few months working with lawmakers on how best to regulate the drug.

“It’s going to pass,” Shurtleff said. “It’s burying our head in the sand to think that if we continue to make it illegal in New Hampshire that people won’t be using marijuana.”

But Representative Patrick Abrami, a Republican who this year chaired Sununu’s commission to study marijuana legalization, said the governor’s veto would probably withstand a vote to overturn.

About 68 percent of the state wants cannabis legalized, a 2017 University of New Hampshire poll found. But Abrami, who opposes legalization, believes that claims of its popularity are overblown. The polls, he said, “never ask the second question: ‘Would you want a marijuana store in your town?’ ”

He acknowledged the cash-strapped state with no income tax could benefit from the tax revenue from pot sales, but his commission decided, “We shouldn’t do it for the money.”

For marijuana advocates, it’s a puzzling dichotomy for a government that embraces sales of liquor — which they argue is more dangerous than marijuana — through state-run stores.

“The hypocrisy is through the roof,” said Raymond, the ski resort server. “All our borders are shared with people who have legalized, and we’re just not. It feels like we’re living in Alabama.”


Naomi Martin can be reached at naomi.martin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @NaomiMartin.