CONCORD — Marijuana legalization is moving back into the legislative spotlight on several fronts.
A House panel last week recommended passage, on a 13-3 vote, for House Bill 1622, letting qualified patients grow a small amount of marijuana for medical reasons.
People could have two marijuana plants under the bill, intended to help patients until the state approves four treatment centers authorized under a new law.
Patients would have to report cultivation of marijuana to the state. They would lose the privilege if a treatment center opens within 30 miles of their home.
An advisory council held a hearing Friday on rules regulating those centers which would open as soon as next year.
Meanwhile, the House’s tax policy committee, Ways and Means, is continuing its review of HB 492, which gained initial approval from the House in January, 170-162.
The committee is expected to issue a report, including its findings about potential revenues and regulatory expenses, as soon as next month.
The House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee also is expected to act soon on HB 1625, reducing the criminal penalty for possession of an ounce or less of marijuana.
Possession of up to an ounce would result in a fine of up to $100, instead of jail time. People now can be sentenced to a year in jail and fined up to $2,000.
Matt Simon, New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, expects HB 492 to gain House approval.
“We think it will pass the House,” Simon said. “We have no illusions about it passing the Senate or becoming law this year.”
The House passed a similar bill last year, only to see it die in the Senate.
Gov. Maggie Hassan also remains an obstacle.
“Legalizing marijuana won’t help us address our substance use challenge,” Hassan, a Democrat, said in her State of the State address this month. “Experience and data suggests it will do just the opposite.”
Hassan said marijuana remains illegal under federal law and New Hampshire has one of the highest rates of marijuana use by young people, despite negative health effects.
“The evidence suggests that legalizing marijuana will increase the number of minors who use this drug, will make our workforce less productive and our roads less safe, and will undermine public health,” said Hassan, who has been pressed by advocates to change her mind about legalization.
Simon said legalization advocates are more hopeful about the bill reducing penalties for offenders.
“That’s a bill we think can have a chance to get to the governor’s desk,” he said.
Hassan seemed to leave the door open to decriminalization in her speech, Simon said.
“We do need to thoughtfully consider our current policies toward substance abuse to refocus on treatment,” Hassan said. “I do not believe that a young person with a substance problem should end up in jail, prison or with a criminal record on their first offense. That is why I would support a comprehensive review of our criminal code and our sentences to consider alternative options that will focus on treatment first.”
No matter the outcome of the legalization debate, Simon sees the issue advancing.
“This sets us up well in a year or two to pass something like that,” he said.
Some lawmakers have made clear they first want to see how Colorado fares with legalization, before doing so in New Hampshire.
Rep. Jordan Ulery, R-Hudson, who represents Pelham, serves on Ways and Means and said he likely will support legalization this session, providing there are proper restrictions.
Ulery maintains some lawmakers have a hard time seeing beyond the demonization of marijuana, though he isn’t one of them.
“I think the state can generate some revenue from this,” Ulery said. “How much revenue would be generated is a crapshoot. No one really knows.”
Estimates have ranged from $10 million to $100 million annually, Ulery said.
The state Department of Revenue forecast at least $26 million a year.
For Ulery, the marijuana issue comes down to whether the state can make money and stop putting people in jail for “silly things.”
Ulery anticipates House passage.
“I think so, the way the House is composed right now,” he said.
Legalization has support from libertarians, liberals and even some conservatives, Ulery said.
“The Senate? I have no idea what the Senate is doing now,” Ulery said.
He’s seen too many reversals of opinions among senators this session.
“Probably it will not pass the Senate, but I’m not sure,” he said.