By John Toole
---- — A New Hampshire House panel has put up a stop sign on recreational use of marijuana just months after the Legislature decriminalized the drug for medical reasons.
On an 11-7 vote, the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee recommended killing House Bill 492.
Chairman Laura Pantelakos, D-Portsmouth, said she was unwilling to support the bill at this point, preferring to see how other states fare in allowing recreational use of marijuana.
“Let’s see what Washington state and Colorado do,” Pantelakos said.
But she said she also had doubts about the bill for other reasons.
“This doesn’t send a very good message to young people,” she said.
Pantelakos isn’t alone in opposing decriminalizing marijuana for recreational purposes.
A spokesman for Gov. Maggie Hassan has said she would veto such a bill if the Legislature sent her one.
Senate President Chuck Morse, R-Salem, also said he opposed the bill.
The House will take up the committee’s recommendation in January, but advocates have acknowledged decriminalization was unlikely to happen in the coming session.
They have said they expect that could take several years to accomplish.
“I am pleased the House committee considered this and the vote was as close as it was,” said Kirk McNeil of Derry, executive director for the New Hampshire Coalition for Common Sense Marijuana Policy. “I’m not surprised this hasn’t come around to legislative fruition yet. But it pleases me people are starting to realize the cost of the drug war is absolutely ridiculous.”
Matt Simon, state director for another advocacy group, the Marijuana Policy Project, said while public opinion has shifted in favor of legalization, lawmakers aren’t there yet.
“Legislators are not quite ready to pull the trigger,” he said.
Simon still holds out hope for the bill because he said “anything is possible” on the House floor, but he expects pro-marijuana lawmakers to bring in new legislation aimed at reducing penalties.
“That will stand a much better chance,” he said.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Steve Vaillancourt, R-Manchester, said on his blog that he will file a minority report urging passage of an amended version.
The bill would legalize possession of up to 1 ounce of marijuana.
It also would let the state license wholesale, retail, cultivation and testing facilities.
Vaillancourt said the proposal could generate $20 million to $30 million in revenue for the state, because marijuana would be taxed.
He points to polls nationally and in New Hampshire showing respondents favoring the legalization of marijuana by wide margins.
The bill would limit marijuana use to adults 21 and older.
“Supporters of this bill are not saying that anyone should use marijuana, merely that it should be an option for consenting adults,” Vaillancourt wrote.
Misdemeanor possession of any amount of marijuana in New Hampshire is punishable by up to one year in prison and a fine of $2,000.
If a person is found guilty of growing an ounce or less of marijuana, or possessing it with intent to sell, that is a felony punishable by up to three years in prison and a fine of up to $25,000.
Possession of an ounce or less of marijuana has been a civil penalty in Massachusetts since 2009, punishable by a fine of $100.
Simon said every state in New England except New Hampshire has enacted some form of decriminalization for recreational use of marijuana.
Though the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police has consistently opposed legalizing marijuana, some in the law enforcement community have urged reform.
The superintendent for corrections in Cheshire County, Richard Van Wickler, has testified before the Legislature in favor of decriminalization, decrying the war on drugs for wasting money and costing lives.
“People are ahead of the politicians on this issue,” said Van Wickler, a leader in Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.
Van Wickler expressed disappointment that New Hampshire didn’t act when he testified for marijuana law reform a couple of years ago.
“My hope at the time was New Hampshire would have been responsible enough and had the courage to be one of the first to do this,” he said.
Van Wickler maintains current drug policy is what allows drug dealers to flourish in neighborhoods today.
“When will New Hampshire get it? I don’t know that they will,” Van Wickler said.
Hassan earlier this year signed into law a bill allowing doctors to prescribe marijuana for medical reasons, but insisted on strict regulation.
The medical marijuana law allows the state to approve up to four dispensaries, but the process is expected to take at least 18 months.