The New Hampshire state Senate on Thursday voted down a bill to legalize recreational marijuana, with senators on both sides of the aisle citing concerns for children’s safety. The measure, which was passed by the New Hampshire House of Representatives last month, was rejected in the Senate by a vote of 14-10 on May 11.
Republican Senator Jeb Bradley, the president of the New Hampshire Senate, said that as the state combats a drug addiction and overdose crisis, it is not the right time to legalize marijuana.
“Recreationalizing marijuana at this critical juncture would send a confusing message, potentially exacerbating the already perilous drug landscape and placing more lives at risk,” Bradley said in a written statement cited by the Coast Reporter.
Had the measure been passed by the state Senate and signed into law by Republican Governor Chris Sununu, House Bill 639 would have legalized the possession and use of small amounts of marijuana for adults aged 21 and older. If adopted, New Hampshire would have been the 22nd state in the nation to legalize recreational marijuana, making it the last in New England to end the prohibition of cannabis.
The legislation would have renamed the New Hampshire Liquor Commission as the Liquor and Cannabis Commission, which would have been tasked with regulating the commercial cultivation, processing, safety testing and distribution of cannabis. The measure also included a 12.5% tax on cannabis cultivation, with revenue raised by the tax dedicated largely to the state’s pension liability and New Hampshire’s education trust fund. Revenue raised from cannabis taxes would also have been used to fund substance misuse programs and law enforcement training.
Under current New Hampshire law, simple possession of up to ¾ of an ounce of cannabis is a civil offense subject to a fine of up to $100. Possession of cannabis in amounts greater than ¾ of an ounce is a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail and a fine of up to $350.
Opponents Cite Youth Safety in New Hampshire
Senator Lou D’Allesando, the lone Democrat in the Senate to vote against the legalization bill, noted that he spent 50 years of his life as a teacher and coach. Also a grandparent, he said that he was opposing the bill to protect kids.
“It would say to our children that marijuana is safe and could be used without harmful consequences,” D’Allesandro said, “and nothing could be further from the truth.”
With the exception of D’Allesandro, all Democratic senators voted in favor of the bill, while all but one Republican voted against the measure. Democratic Senator Becky Whitley refuted claims that legalizing marijuana for adults would cause the rate of use by young people to rise dramatically.
“Youth already use marijuana right now in our state; it’s undeniable,” said Whitley. “What I want to see is a decrease in that use, and if we legalize, that’s what I’m hearing will happen.”
House Democratic Leader Matt Wilhelm said that legalizing marijuana has significant public support in New Hampshire, adding that regulating cannabis could have a positive impact on public health.
“Every day that New Hampshire remains an island of prohibition, more voluntary tax revenue from our residents flows to surrounding states to fund programs and services benefitting their residents,” Wilhelm said in a press release.
Frank Knaack, policy director at the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire, criticized senators who failed to vote in favor of the legalization bill.
“These lawmakers are willing to ignore the will of their own constituents and are okay with continuing to needlessly ensnare over a thousand people — disproportionately Black people — in New Hampshire’s criminal justice system every year,” said Knaack.
The New Hampshire House of Representatives passed the legislation on April 7, but approval became unlikely in the Senate after a key committee recommended against passing the measure. Previous attempts to legalize recreational marijuana in New Hampshire have also seen success in the House of Representatives but failed to gain approval in the state Senate. Supporters of HB 639 had hoped that legalization efforts would finally see success in 2023.
“New Hampshire remains the only state in New England that has failed to legalize cannabis, while our neighbors benefit from increased revenue and their cannabis users benefit from safer testing and regulation of the product,” Democratic Representative Matt Wilhelm, a co-sponsor of the bipartisan bill in the House of Representatives, said in a statement after the bill succeeded in the lower chamber of the legislature last month. “Legalization of adult possession of small amounts of cannabis is the right thing to do for New Hampshire and we must get it done in 2023.”