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September 20. 2013 8:02PM

Marijuana possession finds favor with one NH committee

CONCORD — A majority of a House committee Thursday said they would support a bill that would legalize the possession of marijuana and would tax its sale.

House Bill 492 is modeled after Colorado and Washington laws that were approved by referendum. The New Hampshire bill would allow possession and transportation of up to one ounce of marijuana and the tax on sales would be 15 percent.

In a straw poll, the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee voted 8-5 in favor of the bill, although a number of members were absent.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Steve Vaillancourt, R-Manchester, said no one should celebrate because most of those absent oppose the bill.

He believes the committee vote on his bill, which will come in October or November, is more likely to be 10-10 or 11 against and nine in favor. The committee chair, Rep. Laura Pantelakos, D-Portsmouth, opposes the bill, for example.

“An executive session will be scheduled prior to November 22, and the full House will act on the bill in early January,” Vaillancourt wrote in a blog. “Pass, kill, or interim study would be the three options, and even were the bill to pass, it would most likely be defeated in the Senate.”

Gov. Maggie Hassan supported the bill legalizing medical marijuana use after a provision allowing patients to grow their owns plants was removed, but does not support other bills decriminalizing or legalizing the drug.

“The governor signed HB 573 into law because she believes that allowing doctors to provide relief to patients through the use of appropriately regulated and dispensed medical marijuana is the compassionate and right policy for the State of New Hampshire,” said Hassan Communications Director Marc Goldberg, “but she does not support further legalization and would veto such a measure if it reached her desk.”

During the committee meeting, Matt Simon of the Marijuana Policy Project said a poll asked if they favor allowing marijuana to be regulated and taxed similar to alcohol for those 21 years old and older. The results show 53 percent of New Hampshire residents favor and 37 percent opposed, he noted.

He said there is a sea change in the public’s opinion about marijuana.

Under Vaillancourt’s bill, the state would license the sales and any store where it was sold would have to meet local land use and planning regulations.

New Hampshire is the only state in New England where a person can serve up to a year in jail for possessing a small amount of marijuana.

A bill passed by a nearly two-to-one majority by the House earlier this year would have decriminalized possessing a small amount of marijuana. The Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee recommended killing the bill, but the House instead amended it and sent it to the Senate where it was killed.

Vaillancourt said Colorado’s law has been successful and noted that state could save $25 million because it no longer has to pursue and prosecute users.

He said the Department of Revenue Administration has been unable to determine how much money the tax on marijuana would raise, but whatever it is, it would be money the state is not receiving now.

Vaillancourt told the committee if marijuana were legalized and regulated, it would be safer since use of more dangerous forms of knock off drugs would decline.

He said a study indicates a person’s marijuana use would reduce his or her use of a much more harmful substance — alcohol — by 35 percent.

But bill opponents said making marijuana legal would send the wrong message to young people and would do little or nothing to end the black market sale of the drug.The full committee executive session to vote on the bill has yet to be scheduled.

grayno@unionleader.com


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