More than a year after Massachusetts decriminalized marijuana possession, New Hampshire lawmakers are thinking about doing the same — or even taxing and regulating cannabis.
The ailing economy and budgetary crisis are prompting legislators to take a second or, at least, a longer look at House Bill 1652.
This proposal would allow adults to possess 1 ounce or less, provide for state regulation, and tax marijuana's wholesale and retail sale.
Prime sponsor Rep. Calvin Pratt, R-Goffstown, said he doesn't expect it to become law this year, but if tough economic challenges linger, the bill may be approved in years to come.
For the time being, Pratt said he thinks the decriminalization bill, HB1653, which would allow possession of one-quarter ounce or less, stands a better chance than HB 1652 of gaining House approval.
"All the evidence is that marijuana is a mainstream substance," he said, "and it is currently being regulated by an illicit market and tens of millions of dollars are being shipped out of New Hampshire."
Even a keenly pro law-enforcement lawmaker, Rep. David Welch, R-Kingston, is intrigued by the potential revenue and savings that could be generated by taxing and regulating marijuana.
"It's kind of a strange situation because there is money there and we just lost $110 million this morning," said Welch, of the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.
Welch was talking about the latest budgetary bad news, the loss of Joint Underwriting Account funds after a New Hampshire Supreme Court decision.
Committee recommends tax-and-regulate study
A major supporter of reforming marijuana laws, Matt Simon, 33, said he was pleasantly surprised last week to see the House Criminal Justice Committee vote to recommend the tax-and-regulate marijuana bill go to an interim study.
If the House votes for the study, the committee would study the bill and report back to the House in November.
The proposal narrowly missed, by an 8-10 vote, gaining a committee recommendation that the House pass the bill.
Simon, a former college English professor and the executive director of the NH Coalition for Common Sense Marijuana Policy, said there are economic reasons for supporting such a bill.
A study in 2005 by Jeffrey Miron, a Harvard University economics professor, showed New Hampshire could raise $5.6 million in taxes and save $20 million in enforcement costs by taxing and regulating marijuana.
In addition, Simon said the bill, which would legalize the possession and sale of marijuana, would cut out the criminal drug-dealing element, including Mexican drug cartels.
Ultimately, existing laws are out of step with how people in New Hampshire think about marijuana, Simon said.
A poll conducted by Simon's group in April 2008 showed Granite State voters favor reducing penalties for marijuana possession by a 53 to 34 percent. They also favored medical marijuana reform by 71 to 21 percent, he said.
Less support among police chiefs
Still, many in law enforcement oppose decriminalization, saying legalizing marijuana would promote use of harder drugs and lead to more crime.
Pelham police Chief Joseph Roark said most crimes in his community are drug related and most drug users' habits started with smoking marijuana.
"To me, marijuana is an illegal drug and, in the vast amount of times, it is a drug user's first drug," he said.
So, whether people steal to get money to buy marijuana, or they steal to get money for harder drugs, marijuana use is contributing to crime, he said.
Roark said he has seen many instances where enforcement of marijuana laws, leading to arrest or a diversion program, has encouraged people to change their ways.
Some parents might not even discover their children are using marijuana if possession is decriminalized and subject only to a fine, Roark said.
He also said it would make it harder for police to combat drug dealing since sellers could sell smaller amounts without risking arrest or detection of the sale of harder drugs.
There are lawmakers, too, who clearly oppose marijuana legalization, including Rep. Charles McMahon, R-Windham.
"I'm opposed," he said. "I believe it is a doorway to drug use and the increased use of drugs.
In Newton, where federal authorities confiscated 1,600 pounds of marijuana in 2006, police Chief Larry Streeter said he thinks the drug is bad for people and for society, and it should remain illegal.
Decriminalizing marijuana would create a legal means of self medication and impairment.
"I think society is too permissive as it is," Streeter said.
Supporters of decriminalization say criminal punishment — up to one year in jail and a $1,000 fine — for smoking or possessing a small amount of marijuana is harsh.
Mike Cutler of Brookline, 61, is a lawyer who supported the marijuana decriminalization initiative approved by 65 percent of Massachusetts residents in November 2008.
Ultimately, voters decided it was an issue better dealt with at home than in the criminal justice system.
"Parents felt they would rather deal with this in their kitchens, as opposed to courthouses," Cutler said.
Possession of an ounce of marijuana or less is a civil infraction punishable by a fine of $100 in Massachusetts.
Bay State law hasn't affected enforcement
Two Massachusetts police chiefs said little has changed since the decriminalization law went on the books.
Lawrence police Chief John Romero said he doesn't support legalizing marijuana, but added decriminalization has not affected drug enforcement.
"Most of our cases of marijuana are large scale (more than an ounce)," Romero said.
That was the case before decriminalization and it has been the case since decriminalization.
North Andover Police Department spokesman Paul Gallagher said there probably have been fewer citations under decriminalization than there were arrests for marijuana possession before the law took effect.
There has been a problem with nonpayment of fines, but not with the department's ability to police, Gallagher said.
"I do not believe it has been a problem," he said.
Medical use, decriminalization are connected
Changing attitudes about marijuana have taken root in 14 states. These are places where medical marijuana use has been legalized.
Last year, New Hampshire's attempt to legalize marijuana for medicinal use fell only two votes shy in the Senate of overturning the governor's veto of the bill. The House successfully overcame the veto.
This year, the progress of the proposed decriminalization bill depends a good deal on the recommendation it gets from the Justice Committee.
It still remains to be seen how the bill would fare in the Senate or if Gov. John Lynch would sign it.
Welch, a member of the Justice Committee, said the decriminalization bill makes sense "because our law enforcement people have more important things to do than chasing someone who is smoking a little bit of marijuana."
Welch said his thinking about marijuana laws changed after talks with police officers revealed selective enforcement.
Some of them would arrest a person who possessed a small amount of it and other officers would not.
Welch recalled something he saw at a DWI checkpoint five or six years ago.
Police officers stopped a driver who has a joint. They searched the car and found nothing else illegal in it. Eventually, Welch said, police let the man go, tossing the joint down a sewer drain.
"After that particular incident, I started changing my mind about marijuana use," Welch said.
Pratt said the interesting thing about the pending marijuana bills is bipartisan support for and opposition to them.
"It's odd, it's the weirdest thing I've seen up there," Pratt said. "There are members of both parties who support and oppose it."
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