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April 28. 2013 7:50PM

Supporters of decriminalization opitimistic medicinal pot will pass Senate

CONCORD - Supporters of marijuana decriminalization concede their proposal probably won't pass when it comes up for a Senate vote this week, but they say their major objective this year is enactment of bill to allow its use as "therapeutic cannabis" or medical marijuana.

The Senate will take up a House-passed measure that would reduce the penalty for possession of less than a quarter-once of marijuana to the status of a violation, which would be enforced through the issuance of a ticket.

The Senate Judiciary Committee has recommended, 5-0, against legalization. House-passed decriminalization bills have died in the Senate for the past several years, and supporters expect nothing different this time around.

"The Senate is in the pocket of law enforcement," said Rep. Kyle Tasker, R-Northwood, sponsor of the decriminalization bill. "Nobody wants to go out on a limb for decriminalization when medical (marijuana) is in the chute."

A Senate committee has heard testimony on the House-passed version of legislation allowing use of marijuana for medical purposes but has yet to release a recommendation on the bill.

Gov. Maggie Hassan has expressed reservations about a medical marijuana bill, and supporters speculate that efforts are being made to come up with language that would satisfy the governor's objections.

The state Attorney General's Office, which previously opposed legalization of marijuana for medical purposes, took a different stand at a Senate hearing this month.

The office of the state's chief law enforcement officer is now interested in working on a bill that would legalize the medical use of marijuana but with strict controls on its use.

The goal is to craft a bill that would steer clear of language such as that seen in California, where doctors have sole discretion to decide whether marijuana would help a specific individual and gives physicians immunity from prosecution or medical board discipline if they give medicinal pot to people who don't really need it.

While favoring outright decriminalization of marijuana possession, Tasker said allowing medical marijuana is the priority in the current legislative session.

Looking ahead, Tasker said he sees movement toward both passing the bill allowing medical use of marijuana in the current session and decriminalization in the future.

Tasker said rank-and-file police officers are increasingly in favor of decriminalization.

"One officer may have buddies who smoke marijuana, but a cop who is straight and narrow will come down harder on you," Tasker said. "They shouldn't have discretion; they should have a clear cut directive.

The bill that passed was less liberal than Tasker's original proposal.

He wanted to decriminalize possession of an ounce or less, but after the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee recommended against the measure, it was amended on the floor to decriminalize possession of up to a quarter-ounce and passed, 214-115.

The Senate is scheduled to take up the decriminalization bill at a session Thursday.

bsmith@unionleader.com

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