CONCORD — House legislators approved a bill Wednesday to legalize recreational marijuana, but the lack of a matching Senate bill, as well as a promise by Republican Gov. Chris Sununu to veto the legislation, remain impediments to its prohibition being lifted.
“The fact that there’s no bill coming from the Senate shows that the priority isn’t real high,” said N.H. Sen. Jay V. Kahn, D-Keene, whose district covers much of Cheshire County.
Kahn said he is leaning in favor of legalization, but wants to hear testimony from residents and experts before making a final decision.
While Kahn said the Democratic majority in the Senate would likely vote in favor of some form of legalization, he would prioritize the social consequences of the legislation ahead of any potential revenue boon.
“I don’t believe the vote should be cast on the basis of potential revenue,” Kahn said.
“… New Hampshire doesn’t need to follow what every state does and legalize things just because they can be taxed.”
House Bill 481, which cleared the House on a 209-147 vote, would legalize up to 1 ounce of cannabis (and 5 grams in its concentrated form) for adults 21 and up and regulate it similarly to alcohol.
Despite 44 members being absent, turnout on the House floor broke last year’s record of 354.
State Rep. Robert “Renny” Cushing, D-Hampton, is the bill’s main sponsor.
An unspecified sales tax would be determined after the cost of administration. That tax revenue, according to the bill, is estimated to generate between $19,734,450 and $31,180,431 in the first year of legalization.
The money would go to education and drug treatment programs, as well as on a percentage basis to municipalities where the product is sold and to public safety agencies for the hiring of drug experts on subjects like impaired driving.
The bill would also regulate the cultivation of hemp, the non-psychoactive portion of the plant used in products such as cloth, food, fuel, paint, paper, construction materials and plastics.
Currently, no hemp is allowed to be grown in New Hampshire, although a 2018 House committee report recommended a pilot program to study its production and an appropriate permit process.
Under HB 481, Granite Staters would be able to grow up to six marijuana plants per residence after acquiring a permit and paying a $100 fee.
Although no matching bill exists yet in the Senate, three Senate bills have been introduced this session to expand the state’s medical marijuana program, which allows patients approved by designated caregivers to possess up to 2 ounces.
If HB 481 became law, the prohibition of marijuana as a Schedule 1 narcotic at the federal level would technically supersede legalization in New Hampshire, but other states that have legalized and regulated cannabis — such as Colorado and Massachusetts — have not had their programs shut down through raids. Vermont has also legalized marijuana but has no system in place to buy it at a store.
Unlike in some states with legal pot, more concentrated versions of THC — the predominantly psychoactive component in the plant buds — would remain banned under the bill. These include extracts and tinctures, which do not come in plant form and can be consumed orally.
A comprehensive report on the effects of legalization would be published by January 2021 and every two years after.
Ultimately, Sununu would have the final say on any legislation. And even if all 44 House members who were absent from Wednesday’s vote were to show up and support the bill, it would still be shy of the two-thirds majority necessary to override the governor’s veto.
“Governor Sununu stands with law enforcement and public health officials in the treatment, recovery, and prevention fields, who agree that now is not the time for the recreational legalization of cannabis in New Hampshire,” Sununu’s spokesman Ben Vihstadt said in an electronic message to The Sentinel Wednesday night.
But should the bill ultimately be signed into law, municipalities would control if and where cannabis could be sold within their borders, as well as which of their departments would handle applications for operating a marijuana establishment.
Applicants seeking to grow or sell cannabis would have to be New Hampshire residents for at least three years.
Cannabis vendors would be mandated to remain at least 1,000 feet from schools, and products would have to be packaged in childproof materials.
With Massachusetts’ sales system in its early stages and Vermont yet to establish a sales or revenue model beyond a limit on growing two plants per person, Kahn said it is too early to tell what the social impacts of legalization in border states will bring. As for the prospect of legalization in New Hampshire, he reiterated his desire to hear from the community at hearings in Concord.
“I think it’s right to hear the testimony and consider the evidence that’s presented.”