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Dave Solomon's State House Dome: Lawmakers endorse bill to legalize retail pot sales

By DAVE SOLOMON
October 21. 2017 9:00PM
 (Randall Benton/Sacramento Bee/TNS)

A commission to study the legalization, regulation, and taxation of marijuana in New Hampshire held its first meeting last week with considerable fanfare, even though not much happened.

More substantive action on the marijuana front was taken just a few days earlier, when five members of the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee voted 3-2 to recommend "ought to pass" on HB 656, a full-boat legalization bill.

The bill legalizes personal use by adults 21 and older and calls for retail sales and state taxation. It was retained in the 21-member committee after the last session, and a five-person subcommittee was appointed to study the matter.

The subcommittee met four times in September and October, and on Oct. 12 voted 3-2 to send the bill back to the full committee with a thumbs up. Voting for the measure were subcommittee chairman Frank Sapareto, R-Derry, Beth Rodd, D-Bradford, and Renny Cushing, D-Hampton. Voting against were David Welch, R-Kingston, and Kate Murray, D-New Castle.

"We're an island right now," said Sapareto, referring to legalization in Massachusetts and Maine, and a steady march in that direction in Vermont.

He also believes the state can no longer afford to divert much-needed law enforcement resources to marijuana use.

"If you do enough ride-alongs with the state police, as I have, it becomes obvious," he said. "Right now there is so much marijuana out there that to enforce the laws would be impossible without another $70 million to $80 million in law enforcement."

The full committee is expected to take up the subcommittee recommendation on Nov. 14, and that vote is likely to be close. Welch, who voted "no" on the subcommittee is the chairman of the full committee, while Sapareto is the vice chairman.

"I strongly encouraged all the committee members to do ride alongs with law enforcement so they can know what they are voting on," Sapareto said. "That would be the factor that will change their vote."

Some will no doubt argue that any vote on legalization is premature until the commission appointed by the passage of HB 215 completes its work in November 2018. As far as Sapareto is concerned, the commission outcome is a foregone conclusion.

"The commission is a joke," he said. "It's stuffed with people who are already opposed to marijuana no matter what, so there is no question what that commission is going to come out with. It's a waste of time. We all know exactly what it's going to say."

Matt Simon, of the Marijuana Policy Project, was an early critic of the commission's composition as well but says he was happy to hear the chairman, Rep. Patrick Abrami, R-Stratham, call for open minds all around.

"He chose his words carefully, and I appreciated his call for objectivity and for people to leave their biases at home, as he put it," said Simon.

Candidate forum

The House Freedom Caucus will host a forum for candidates for House Speaker on Nov. 2 at the Holiday Inn in Concord. The event is open to House members of all parties. The public will be allowed to attend, depending on space available.

"While we don't anticipate that the Freedom Caucus will endorse any candidate, we want all members to go into this vote with a clear sense of what 2018 might bring. We look forward to providing this opportunity to all the candidates," said Rep. J.R. Hoell, R-Dunbarton, a Freedom Caucus organizer.

Declared candidates for the job so far include Deputy Speaker Gene Chandler, R-Bartlett, and six other reps - Laurie Sanborn, R-Bedford; Jim McConnell, R-North Swanzey; John Burt, R-Goffstown; Al Baldasaro, R-Londonderry; and Steven Smith, R-Charlestown.

Incumbent House Speaker Shawn Jasper set the stage for the contest when he announced plans to seek the open position of Agriculture Commissioner at the urging of Gov. Chris Sununu.

More names could surface before the Republican Party caucus vote on Nov. 29 and the final election in the full House on Nov. 30. Some are viable contenders, while others might be simply vying for a good committee assignment.

Sapareto mounted a campaign for House Speaker in 2016, but earned only three votes in the Nov. 30 election before dropping out and throwing his support to Jasper. That earned him the vice chairmanship of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee in a quid pro quo acknowledged at the time by the Speaker.

Dave Solomon covers the State House for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. Contact him at dsolomon@unionleader.com.


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