January 18. 2014 11:15PM

Senators surveyed tend to pan pot proposal

New Hampshire Union Leader


CONCORD - An informal poll of New Hampshire state senators shows little support for the idea of legalizing marijuana for recreational use.

Of the 12 who responded, one was in favor of the idea.

A bill given preliminary approval by the House would legalize possession of up to 1 ounce of marijuana for recreational use by anyone 21 and older and allow people to grow up to six marijuana plants for personal use. It would also license marijuana cultivation establishments, retail stores and testing facilities and impose a $30-per-ounce wholesale tax and 15 percent retail sales tax.

There's no guarantee that the bill will ever reach the Senate.

The House voted, 170-162, to send it to its Ways and Means Committee, which will review the proposed sales tax. That committee will eventually send the bill back to the House, and if it's again approved there, it will head to the Senate.

"You don't ever want to say you would never support something, but I don't support this, and I don't see that changing," said Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro. "This bill is wrong for New Hampshire."

"I would not support this," said Sen. Jeanie Forrester, R-Meredith. "I believe it's a bad message we would be sending our young people. It would not be a good policy for New Hampshire. In talking with law enforcement folks, the argument that some are making that this would alleviate overcrowding in our jails, which they say are overflowing with people convicted on drug possession charges, it's not a valid argument. Most of them are in for harsher crimes, involving drugs like heroin or cocaine. Most law enforcement officials I have talked with don't support this bill."

Union Leader and Sunday News reporters either spoke with or left messages for all 24 members of the state Senate, asking whether they supported the House bill or could envision any scenario in which they would support legalizing marijuana for recreational use. Of the 12 who responded, just one, Republican Sen. John Reagan of Deerfield, supported the bill. Others said they would not support the bill or expressed skepticism. One, Sen. Martha Fuller Clark, D-Portsmouth, said she wasn't sure how she felt.

Reagan said he opposes any effort by government to "tell citizens what they can eat, drink, chew or smoke."

"I support any legalization," he said. "I've always advocated for it."

"I am very conflicted about this legislation at the moment," Fuller Clark said in an email. "I will review the testimony from the House and attend the public hearing in the Senate in order to understand the issues on both sides and how the bill might be improved. I am not prepared to commit to a vote right now."

The Senate rejected a bill to decriminalize possession of up to a quarter ounce of the drug during last year's session.

House supporters said the bill was modeled after one approved by Colorado voters last year and is similar to one Washington voters passed. They said New Hampshire could receive $30 million annually in tax revenue.

Opponents argued marijuana is bad for people's health, would be difficult to regulate and is illegal under federal law.

"If HB 492, marijuana legalization, were to make it to the Senate, I would do what I have done in the past on the marijuana legalization issue - I would vote no on marijuana legalization," said state Sen. David Boutin, R-Hooksett.

"I have always opposed it," said Sen. Nancy Stiles, R-Hampton. "I haven't seen anything yet that would change my mind."

"I would put me in the very-unlikely-to-support category," said Sen. Peter Bragdon, R-Milford.

"I would be very skeptical," said Sen. Lou D'Allesandro, D-Manchester.

D'Allesandro said he supported medical marijuana legislation because it served a "specific purpose" - to alleviate pain and help the chronically ill.

"This one's a bit more challenging," he said of recreational marijuana.

Sen. Donna Soucy, D-Manchester, said she would prefer to see the effects of the medical marijuana legislation before taking up bills to legalize the drug for recreational use.

"I think it's premature to be considering (the recreational marijuana bill) when we haven't even seen enactment or rules regarding medical marijuana," she said.

"At this point, the bill remains in the House for additional committee work and final votes, so it would be premature to comment on it at this time," said Sen. Andy Sanborn, R-Bedford. "That being said, I ran for office to ensure government is spending tax dollars more wisely, and if this bill looks to create new or raise taxes, I would not be inclined to vote for it."

"I would very likely vote against it," said Sen. Jeff Woodburn, D-Dalton. "I would rather focus on decriminalization. As the only Senate co-sponsor of the marijuana decriminalization bill, I would like to focus on bringing our penalties for possession of small amounts of cannabis in line with current law enforcement and police practice. Our present marijuana possession law lacks legitimacy - it's not popular, practical or predictable. Law enforcement, judges and juries regularly ignore the maximum sentencing requirement. This makes a mockery of the law and undermines our system of government."

Woodburn said he would rule out supporting a legalization bill in the future.

"I think many of us agree that the times are changing and we need more rational, practical laws on possession of marijuana," said Woodburn. "However, there is concern that flat-out legalization is too much, too fast. This is not something we should do hastily without involving important stakeholders. We made great progress last year by finally allowing sick people to access cannabis for medicinal purposes, but that took some time to get it right."

If the bill passes the House in a full vote and does manage to get through the Senate, Gov. Maggie Hassan has promised to veto it, despite numerous calls late last week asking her to reconsider her position.

"Our office has received a high volume of correspondence and calls in regards to HB 492, including from many who disagree with the governor's position, and Governor Hassan appreciates that individuals have taken the time to share their views and engage in the legislative process," Marc Goldberg, Hassan's communications director, wrote in an email. "The governor continues to believe that the medical marijuana measure that she signed into law last year, which allows doctors to provide relief to patients with appropriate regulation and dispensing, is the right and compassionate policy for the state of New Hampshire, but she does not support further efforts to legalize marijuana.

"Marijuana is illegal under federal law, and New Hampshire already has among the highest rates in the nation of marijuana, alcohol and other substance use by young people. Governor Hassan is focused on addressing our substance use challenges and strengthening public health by increasing access to treatment and prevention through measures like Medicaid expansion, which would provide over 50,000 individuals with coverage for substance abuse treatment."

Union Leader staff reporter Tim Buckland contributed to this report.