EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

February 14, 2013

Supporters of medical marijuana are optimistic

Less likely decriminalization proposals would pass

By Doug Ireland

---- — Supporters of medical marijuana legislation are hopeful state lawmakers will approve the measure — and the new governor will follow.

Proponents know the legislation has a better chance of passing since former Gov. John Lynch left office. The four-term Democratic governor was a staunch opponent of marijuana legislation, vowing to veto any bill that hit his desk.

Newly elected Gov. Maggie Hassan said she’s willing to consider signing a marijuana medical bill into law, but opposes decriminalization.

Two recent polls show widespread public support for medical marijuana, less for decriminalization.

Three decriminalization bills will be heard by a House panel today. The bills either reduce or eliminate the penalty for possession of small amounts of marijuana.

They will be considered by the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee at beginning 1 p.m. A hearing on the medical marijuana legislation, House Bill 573, is scheduled for a week from today.

This won’t be the first time marijuana legislation has appeared before lawmakers. Similar bills were defeated in the Legislature in recent years. One piece of decriminalization legislation survived a 162-161 vote in the House last year, but was killed in the Senate.

Rep. Kyle Tasker, R-Nottingham, is a little more optimistic this year. Tasker has sponsored two of the three decriminalization bills, and is confident at least one will pass.

He is the only sponsor of House Bill 621, which would lessen the penalty imposed on anyone convicted of possessing less than an ounce of marijuana. Instead of facing up to a year in jail and a $2,000 fine for the misdemeanor crime, he proposes it be reduced to a violation with a fine of no more than $100.

Tasker said a young person convicted of using small amounts of marijuana shouldn’t be prevented from receiving financial aid for college.

“You can be doing something that hurts no one else and not be able to get money for college,” he said. “Stuff like that really sticks to you for life.”

Tasker, 28, admits to using marijuana in high school and college, but said he does not now.

He said he believes there is enough support in both the Senate and House for HB 621 to pass, and said it would not face an automatic veto since Lynch is no longer governor.

“Gov. Lynch was a detriment to any marijuana reform,” he said.

Hassan spokesman Marc Goldberg said yesterday the governor opposes all decriminalization legislation.

Tasker is not as confident about House Bill 337, which would drop all criminal penalties for marijuana use and possession.

“I believe in that bill, but just don’t see it happening this year,” he said.

The third decriminalization bill, House Bill 492, legalizes the use of up to 1 ounce of marijuana by anyone at least 21 years old.

The legislation also allows the licensing of marijuana wholesale, retail, cultivation and testing facilities, and imposes a tax on its sale.

The bills have received the support from pro-marijuana groups, including the New Hampshire Coalition for Common Sense Marijuana Policy.

The coalition’s executive director, Kirk McNeil, said he will attend today’s hearings in Concord to show support for the legislation.

McNeil called the penalties for marijuana use and possession “out of whack” and, like Tasker, said a conviction for using a small amount should not have a significant impact on a person’s future.

“It should not stop someone from going to college or joining the armed forces,” he said.

But he’s not optimistic about the decriminalization legislation, saying it faces strong opposition from police unions and law enforcement organizations, including the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police.

“Of the three (decriminalization bills) being considered, I don’t think they will have a chance of passing, “ McNeil said. “I expect medical marijuana will have a good chance of passing.”

That’s because Hassan supports the measure, McNeil said. Goldberg said the governor would carefully consider such legislation.

“If appropriately regulated, with controlled and limited dispensing, Gov. Hassan supports allowing access to medical marijuana for patients,” he said. “The governor will closely evaluate any measure permitting the use of medically prescribed marijuana to ensure that the method of distribution is safe and tightly regulated, and will consult with relevant stakeholders, including the law enforcement and medical communities.”

Two polls show many New Hampshire residents support medical marijuana.

The Granite State Poll, conducted by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, showed 79 percent of respondents support letting doctors recommend marijuana for patients suffering from serious illnesses.

A second poll by Public Policy Polling showed 68 percent of the state residents surveyed think the state should adopt a medical marijuana law.

In the Granite State Poll, just 48 percent supported legalizing marijuana for recreational use.