A proposal to decriminalize possession of a quarter ounce or less of marijuana got a major boost yesterday when a House committee voted 16-2 to recommend it.
The bill now moves to a full House vote in the coming weeks, where it is expected to pass, Rep. David Welch, R-Kingston, said.
If the bill makes it through the House, the Senate and the governor's desk, possession of a quarter-ounce or less would be a violation, carrying a penalty of $200. Possession is now a Class A misdemeanor.
Welch said decriminalization makes sense. Continuing to spend limited law enforcement resources battling marijuana use "seems foolish," Welch said.
"It's no worse than tobacco and possibly not as bad," he said.
But many people in law enforcement oppose decriminalization. They say legalizing marijuana would promote use of harder drugs and lead to more crime.
Matt Simon, 33, does not share that perspective.
Simon, the executive director of the NH Coalition for Common Sense Marijuana Policy, said he was pleasantly surprised yesterday with the Justice Committee vote.
Two years ago, before the House voted 193-141 to support decriminalization, the bill was rejected by the Justice Committee, 13-5.
The difference now, Simon said, is committee members are much more comfortable with the legislation.
"In two years, much has changed," Simon said. "The committee has become much more knowledgeable about decriminalization and heard from constituents."
Simon said he sees the bill gaining momentum and moving to the Senate — and getting a fair hearing there. He said he thinks the bill could pick up a few extra votes in the Senate.
Last year, New Hampshire's attempt to legalize marijuana for medicinal use fell just two votes shy in the Senate of overturning the governor's veto of the bill. The House successfully overcame the veto.
Democratic Gov. John Lynch opposes decriminalizing marijuana possession, spokesman Colin Manning said last night.
Massachusetts decriminalized marijuana in November 2008. Possession of an ounce or less is a civil infraction punishable by a fine of $100.
Welch, 69, was among the 16 members of the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee who voted to recommend that HB 1653 "ought to pass."
The decriminalization debate was bound to happen eventually, Welch said.
"The discussion has to start somewhere and it has started here," he said.
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