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Bill to decriminalize pot has bipartisan support


CONCORD — New Hampshire is closer than ever to joining 21 other states, including the five other New England states, in decriminalizing marijuana for adult use.

A bill now working its way through the Legislature has bipartisan support, and Gov. Chris Sununu said during the campaign he would support decriminalization.

If signed into law, House Bill 640 would reduce the penalties for adult possession of up to one ounce of marijuana and five grams of hashish to a violation, similar to a traffic ticket, for anyone 18 years or older.

Passage of the bill would end a debate that has gone on since the 1970s, when state Rep. Chuck Grassie, D-Rochester, first introduced a decriminalization bill. He’s been in and out of the Legislature over the years, and is now serving his sixth term.

One of several sponsors of HB 640, Grassie is more optimistic than ever.

“I think what you’re seeing now is a libertarian element that is supporting this,” he said. “We have a number of Republicans who are libertarians and feel if this is a crime it’s a victimless crime, and this is more a social issue than a criminal matter.”

The GOP-controlled House voted by more than 3-to-1 to decriminalize possession of up to a half ounce in 2015, only to have the measure die in the Senate with the promise of a veto by Gov. Maggie Hassan.

At the time, decriminalization was opposed by law enforcement and many of the social service agencies on the front lines in the battle against opioid addiction.

But with full legalization now a fact of life in neighboring Maine and Massachusetts, supporters of decriminalization in New Hampshire made sure to line up all the stakeholders they could in the hope of finally getting a bill signed into law.

A steady stream of supporters came to the microphone in support of the measure on Wednesday in a hearing before the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Commission, with only one speaker in opposition — Meredith Cook, director of public policy for the Diocese of Manchester.

“Marijuana represents a significant part of substance abuse in New Hampshire,” she said, “and we’re concerned that this takes New Hampshire down a very dangerous path. We are very concerned about the message it sends to young people.”

Kate Frey, advocacy director for New Futures, said the agency that coordinates many of the substance abuse programs in the state is not supporting the bill, but is not opposing it either.

“We are not taking a position on this particular legislation, but we are not opposed, because we believe principles we proposed are included,” Frey testified.

There was no testimony in opposition from law enforcement or from the Department of Justice.

“There’s been a consultative process that’s gone on for the past six months with stakeholders that led to an agreement that criminalizing people for possession of small amounts of marijuana just isn’t good public policy, and we tried to find common ground,” said state Rep. Renny Cushing, D-Hampton.

That doesn’t mean law enforcement and the Attorney General’s Office support the bill.

“There’s a difference between support and not opposing,” Cushing said. “We think we have a final product that will be acceptable to the House, the Senate and the governor. Everyone knows we’re in a new era because of Maine and Massachusetts.”

Much of the testimony on Wednesday consisted of marijuana users describing how arrest and incarceration for possession affected their lives in a permanent and destructive way.

Although law enforcement officials have testified in the past that arrest for possession of small amounts is rare, criminal defense attorney Jonathan Cohen of Concord testified that he has seen too many cases.

“Just yesterday I was in court with a client accused of possessing marijuana, and as I waited for my case to be called, I saw five other cases,” he said, “four of them were possession of marijuana cases involving young people. This is the frequency we are seeing in our courts, whose dockets are clogged.”

A legalization bill was also the subject of a public hearing yesterday, but is not likely to get very far. House Bill 656 would legalize marijuana, allow users to grow their own plants and set up a statewide system for retail sale and taxation.

“I don’t think it has widespread support,” said Cushing. “Decriminalization doesn’t mean it’s legal.”

dsolomon@unionleader.com

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