By John Toole
---- — The “Live Free or Die” state soon could become the last in New England to approve letting ailing people use marijuana to relieve their suffering.
A New Hampshire House panel last week overwhelmingly, on a 14-1 vote, recommended passage for House Bill 573. The speaker’s office said the full House will consider the bill later this month.
“This bill is not going to turn this state into a bunch of pot heads,” co-sponsor Rep. Debra DeSimone, R-Atkinson said Friday.
The bill will give relief to those ailing people that marijuana will help, she said.
“It behooves us as a society to do that,” DeSimone said. “My question is, ‘Why should people suffer when they don’t have to?’’’
The bill came out of the House Health, Human Services and Elderly Affairs Committee on Thursday with the support of Rep. Paddy Culbert, R-Pelham, who related for the panel how his wife, Judy, resorted to marijuana before she died.
“For the first time in six months, she was out of pain, for four days,” Culbert recalled in an interview Friday.
But she was afraid to continue using marijuana because it was illegal, he said.
“She wouldn’t take it again,” he said.
Culbert, in comments before the committee, said people like his late wife shouldn’t have to suffer when marijuana can help them.
His message to the Legislature: “Pass it.”
Rep. Charles McMahon, R-Windham, another member of the committee, also supports passage.
“The regulatory oversight controlling access for this product, medically, I believe has met the test,” McMahon said.
A conservative House last session narrowly approved a medical marijuana bill. But the Senate rejected it as then-Gov. John Lynch threatened a veto.
The Legislature became more centrist after the election in November and new Gov. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat, has indicated she can support allowing people to use marijuana for medical reasons.
While DeSimone anticipates House passage, she will make no prediction on the Senate.
“That is a tough call,” she said.
She is concerned the Legislature has many difficult decisions and hopes that won’t distract the Senate from making a good decision on this bill.
“I hope the Senate will read this bill and realize it’s good legislation,” DeSimone said.
Culbert isn’t sure what the Senate will do.
“This will be debated a little bit,” he said.
He acknowledged Hassan may have reservations because the bill would let people who are ill grow several marijuana plants for their use. He said he isn’t sure whether she will veto the bill.
“I can’t read her mind,” Culbert said.
DeSimone and Culbert said the Legislature could, at some point in the process, see an amendment dealing with that question.
It would not trouble Culbert if Hassan let the bill become law without her signature.
“I would prefer she be able to sit down with the powers that be so we can work on it,” DeSimone said.
Hassan spokesman Marc Goldberg said the governor will continue to evaluate the legislation with relevant stakeholders, including the law enforcement and medical communities, to ensure the method of distribution is safe and tightly regulated.
But regulatory expense also is a concern for Hassan.
“Allowing access to medical marijuana would require increased regulatory oversight by the Departments of Safety and Health and Human Services, whose budgets are already substantially strained,” Goldberg said.
The bill must be evaluated in the context of the overall budget, he said.
“It would be difficult to expect agencies to take on new responsibilities while we are not adequately funding our basic responsibilities,” Goldberg said.
Opposition exists to the bill from law enforcement, religious groups and doctors, DeSimone said, though she noted some doctors would like to see it passed for the benefit of their patients.
“You’re seeing a split,” she said.
A subcommittee that reviewed the bill did a fine job drawing on the best of the nation’s laws and in tightening regulation, McMahon said.
“This truly does help people in very severe health crisis,” he said.
The bill establishes hurdles before a doctor can prescribe marijuana, including proof of a long-term care relationship between physician and patient, he said.
It prevents doctor shopping, McMahon said.
“That is not going to happen in New Hampshire,” he said.
A reworked version of the bill the House will consider makes clear its intent.
“This is for people to have access to a product that provides demonstrated relief for medical purposes,” McMahon said.
HB 573 is expected before the House as soon as March 20, though the calendar is busy. There are many bills up for consideration and Speaker Terie Norelli has warned she may have to call representatives into session more days later this month.
Three other bills legalizing marijuana or reducing penalties are unlikely to come out of the House.
The House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee is retaining HB 492 for future consideration next year, but is recommending the House reject HB 337 and HB 621.
HB 337 is on the House calendar for action Wednesday, with a divided 12-8 report recommending the bill be killed. But expect floor debate.
“The minority believes that the time has come for a serious discussion about the state’s war on marijuana users,” Rep. Mark Warden, R-Manchester, wrote in a minority report from the committee to the House.