A bill to decriminalize possession of a quarter-ounce or less of marijuana won convincing support yesterday in the House with a 214-137 vote.
But the tally is about 17 votes short of the two-thirds majority needed to override a veto promised by Gov. John Lynch.
Rep. Frank Sapareto, R-Derry, who voted for the legislation, said the state's marijuana possession law is harsh enough. The penalty is a $2,000 fine and a year in jail.
Furthermore, Sapareto said a conviction can close doors for young people, putting federal loans for college or military enlistment at risk.
"It's ridiculous," he said.
The decriminalization bill now heads to the Senate.
Sen. Mike Downing, R-Salem, a former state trooper and police officer, has yet to support a marijuana decriminalization bill.
"I haven't voted for it yet," Downing said. He doesn't see that trend changing.
Downing said his law enforcement background tells him marijuana use leads to harder drugs.
And, regardless of whether the state decriminalizes marijuana possession, it's still a federal crime, he said.
If the New Hampshire bill becomes law, possession of a quarter-ounce or less would be a violation, carrying a penalty of $200. Marijuana possession is now a Class A misdemeanor.
Matt Simon, executive director of the New Hampshire Coalition for Common Sense Marijuana Policy, was pleasantly surprised with yesterday's House vote. The decriminalization effort is making headway, and many legislators support the proposal.
Two years ago, the House voted 193-141 to support decriminalization after the bill was rejected by the Justice Committee, 13-5.
This year, the bill received approval from the Justice Committee, 16-2, before the 214-137 vote by the entire House.
Simon doesn't expect the bill to become law this year but is not ruling out the possibility.
"We know the governor is against it, but we expect a fair hearing in the Senate," Simon said. "After three years in a row, we expect to be taken seriously in the Senate."
The governor released a statement yesterday reaffirming his opposition to decriminalization, saying he shares "the law enforcement community's concerns about proliferation of this drug."
"We should not make the jobs of parents - or law enforcement - harder by sending a false message that some marijuana use is acceptable," Lynch said.
The governor said he will veto a marijuana decriminalization bill if it reaches his desk.
Simon rejects the governor's argument.
"If he thinks people in New Hampshire should be imprisoned up to a year in jail for possessing small amounts of marijuana, we'd love to hear his explanation," Simon said.
Last year, New Hampshire's attempt to legalize marijuana for medicinal use fell just two votes shy in the Senate of overturning Lynch's veto. The House successfully overcame the veto.
Massachusetts decriminalized marijuana in November 2008.
Possession of an ounce or less is a civil infraction punishable by a fine of $100.
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