CONCORD — The New Hampshire House, despite a threatened veto by Gov. Maggie Hassan, yesterday gave preliminary approval to legalizing marijuana.
The 170-162 vote followed more than two hours of debate, an earlier vote to kill the bill and considerable parliamentary maneuvering.
House Bill 492 now heads to the Ways and Means Committee, which will review potential tax issues arising from regulating and permitting the sale of marijuana in the state.
But advocates have publicly acknowledged it is unlikely to become law this year.
Besides Hassan, Senate President Chuck Morse, R-Salem, has said he is opposed.
But sponsors are convinced their time is now, with polls showing three-fifths of Granite Staters favoring legalization.
“To everything there is a season. This is the season,” Rep. Steve Vaillancourt, R-Manchester, told the House.
The House initially followed the recommendation of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee and rejected the bill, 170-168, but in a series of votes reconsidered and then passed it.
The bill would allow possession of up to an ounce of marijuana by people 21 and older, but also let the state regulate the sale of the drug. Vaillancourt estimates it could bring the state $25 million to $30 million a year, but said Ways and Means will better evaluate revenue prospects.
Rep. Frank Sapareto, R-Derry, argued for legalization both because of the opportunity for tax revenue and the cost of enforcement and incarceration of offenders.
“It gets expensive to do these things,” Sapareto said.
Rep. Shawn Jasper, R-Hudson, who represents Pelham, said the House was moving forward without considering the impact on driving safety.
“I’d suggest to you that is not responsible,” Jasper said.
But some lawmakers were dismissive of what they see as a costly, lengthy, failing war on drugs.
“Is now the time to take marijuana out of the hands of criminal gangs and put it in the hands of the police?” asked Rep. Romeo Danais, R-Nottingham.
Rep. Lawrence Kappler, R-Raymond, said he was opposed to the bill because a youth group from his town asked him to do so.
“This bill has major problems and is poor public policy,” Kappler said.
Despite the Criminal Justice Committee’s line that the bill is poorly crafted, and will pose trouble for law enforcement and municipalities, advocates pushed their case.
Rep. Joel Winters, D-Manchester, said the bill left state officials “18 months to work out all the regulation.”
Winters pointed to other states legalizing marijuana.
“This is working in Colorado, I think it is going to work in Washington and we can make it work in New Hampshire, too,” he said.
Rep. David Hess, R-Hooksett, at one point tried to table the bill.
“The House is basically divided right down the center,” Hess said.
But Vaillancourt successfully fought back.
“Believe me, the country is watching us,” Vaillancourt said.
He also tried to calm lawmakers uneasy about the proposal, letting them know the House is simply sending the bill to a second committee and will get another chance at it later.
“We are not rushing into anything here,” Vaillancourt said.
Matt Simon, a legislative analyst with the Marijuana Policy Project, a pro-marijuana advocacy group, called the House vote historic, the first time a legislative body had voted to establish a legal marijuana market for adults.
Washington and Colorado have done so through voter referendum.
“House members made history today and they are clearly on the right side of it,” Simon said.
“Law enforcement officials will be able to spend their time addressing serious crimes instead of arresting and prosecuting adults for using a less harmful substance than alcohol,” he said.
Last year the Senate killed a House-passed bill decriminalizing marijuana possession. The Legislature did pass a bill, which Hassan signed into law, allowing use of marijuana for medical reasons when prescribed by a physician.