By John Toole
---- — CONCORD — Just months after the Legislature approved legalizing marijuana for medical reasons, a New Hampshire House committee is signaling it could support recreational use of the drug.
But a spokesman for Gov. Maggie Hassan said she would veto such a bill, and the Senate president is among lawmakers who are skeptical the full Legislature is ready to decriminalize marijuana.
Even an advocate for legalization from Derry, while seeing the favorable straw vote in the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee as encouraging, expects this is just the start of years-long political debate.
“I think this is one of those debates that will start this year and carry on for some time,” said Kirk McNeil, executive director for the New Hampshire Coalition for Common Sense Marijuana Policy.
“That’s the way things go in New Hampshire,” he said. “We’re going to be talking about it for a little while.”
Last Thursday the House committee split 8-5 in favor of passage of House Bill 492 through the non-binding straw vote.
The bill would legalize, regulate and tax marijuana in New Hampshire in a similar manner to Colorado. People 21 and older could have up to an ounce.
State Rep. Gene Charron, R-Chester, the committee’s clerk, said the panel is expected to issue a formal recommendation on the bill later this fall, in time for the 2014 legislative session.
Charron was among the dissenters.
Charron said he has concerns about how the state would regulate and control recreational use of marijuana.
He said he is also reluctant to change New Hampshire law without first seeing how legalization works in other states.
“I want to see what’s going on in Colorado,” Charron said.
The bill’s prime sponsor, state Rep. Steve Vaillancourt, R-Manchester, cautioned proponents about the prospects for passage.
“Don’t get your hopes up, marijuana supporters,” Vaillancourt said on his blog.
“Votes often depend on who is present, and most of those opposed to legalization, including Chair Laura Pantelakos, D-Portsmouth, were absent for today’s work session,” he wrote.
Vaillancourt predicted the committee could split 10-10 or oppose legalization 11-9 when a formal vote comes this fall.
Charron doubts the bill will win legislative approval.
“I think this may have a chance in the House,” Charron said. “In the Senate, it’s going to be an issue.”
Senate President Chuck Morse, R-Salem, agrees.
Morse said he hasn’t polled senators but is himself opposed.
“I’m absolutely against it,” Morse said.
“The chances in the Senate are close to zero percent,” said Matt Simon, state director for a national advocacy group, the Marijuana Policy Project.
The Legislature only recently approved the use of marijuana for medical reasons, Morse said. “That was a totally different matter.”
It certainly was for Gov. Hassan.
“The governor signed H.B. 573 into law because she believes that allowing doctors to provide relief to patients through the use of appropriately regulated and dispensed medical marijuana is the compassionate and right policy for the state of New Hampshire,” spokesman Marc Goldberg said.
But that’s where the governor draws the line with marijuana.
“She does not support further legalization and would veto such a measure if it reached her desk,” Goldberg said.
Before the Legislature approved permitting marijuana for medical reasons, the governor forced changes in the law by insisting on strict regulation and refusing to let patients grow small amounts on their own.
McNeil said he was pleased the state legalized marijuana for medical reasons, but said there are holes in the law that will keep patients from accessing the drug for as long as two years.
“Frankly, I see decriminalization of small amounts as a way people can address those issues themselves,” McNeil said.
New Hampshire could choose to follow Vermont’s example and reduce the potential punishment for possession to a simple fine, Simon said.
“A House vote would be interesting on the bill in 2014,” he said.
But it’s also possible the bill could be held back for more study, he said.
“Either way, the issue will advance next year,” Simon said.
Legalizing marijuana would at least let people be honest with one another because so many now use the drug in defiance of the law, McNeil maintains.
The state constitution also calls for punishment to fit the crime and McNeil contends that’s not the case with marijuana.
“The punishment is way out of proportion to the crime,” he said.
Possession of less than an ounce could result in a prison term of up to three years and a fine of up to $25,000.
Law enforcement leaders remain opposed to decriminalizing marijuana.
Charron said the state attorney general, state police and the police chiefs association continue to object.
“Their position stands,” Charron said.
But law enforcement is not united on the issue.
Charron and McNeil pointed to New Hampshire officers who have spoken in favor of legalization, saying public safety and correctional resources are better spent on more serious crime.
Public Policy Polling this year said about 70 percent of Granite Staters backed medical use of marijuana, but support fell to just over 50 percent for recreational use.
Simon expects New Hampshire will keep an eye on Washington and Colorado, states that have legalized marijuana, as the debate continues to unfold, a process that might take time to settle.
“It could take several years before the state is ready to regulate marijuana,” Simon said.