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House Passes Cannabis Legalization Bill, Sends Measure to Senate

Credit: iStock

by Ethan DeWitt, New Hampshire Bulletin

This story was updated on April 10 at 10:11 a.m. to note that the House vote cleared a two-thirds majority, the threshold for overturning a gubernatorial veto. 

The New Hampshire House passed a cannabis legalization bill over to the Senate Thursday, in a 272-109 vote that echoed a long history of support for the idea in the House. 

House Bill 639 is the latest attempt by the House to make marijuana fully legal to buy and possess in New Hampshire. The state decriminalized the possession of cannabis in 2017, allowing residents to possess up to three-quarters of an ounce without being subject to jail time. However law enforcement can still impose fines for cannabis possession, and possession or sale of larger amounts can lead to criminal charges.

This year’s bill would allow people 21 and older to possess, purchase, use, gift, and transport up to four ounces of cannabis in plant form and up to 20 grams of concentrated cannabis products, as well as edible products. The bill allows for retail sales that are taxed by the state at 12.5 percent of the wholesale price. The bill would also create a commission to test and regulate all cannabis products sold in the state. 

Under the bill, towns and cities would be able to enact ordinances or pass warrant articles barring cannabis retail stores from their municipalities or limiting the number of stores.

Lawmakers speaking in favor of the bill argued it would help New Hampshire attain some of the economic benefits seen by neighboring New England states that have legalized. And they said the relatively low tax proposed for New Hampshire would both drive up demand in the state and reduce the black market for cannabis in the state, which could help improve the quality of cannabis products.

“We intend to undercut the price of legal cannabis in this region and to try to become the first state to wipe out the black market,” said Rep. Susan Almy, a Lebanon Democrat. 

Almy also said the bill would help people “whose life chances were cut short because they were convicted of possession or sale of cannabis.” The bill includes a provision to annul all cannabis-related criminal court guilty verdicts that had been given out in the past. 

The bill was supported by 103 Republicans and 169 Democrats. No one spoke against the bill on Thursday, though 87 Republicans and 22 Democrats voted not to pass it. 

Representatives have made some changes to the legalization bill. When first proposed this year, the House bill devoted 70 percent of revenues toward paying down the state’s more than $5 billion financial hole in its retirement system, known as the “unfunded actuarial assumed liability.” 

But when the bill came to the House Ways and Means Committee, lawmakers there changed the revenue structure to direct 50 percent of revenues toward reducing the amount that towns must raise through the Statewide Education Property Tax. The new version would devote 30 percent to paying down the retirement system hole and 10 percent or $25 million – whichever is less – to the state’s substance abuse prevention and recovery fund. That version passed the full House Thursday. 

The bill heads next to the New Hampshire Senate, which has historically opposed cannabis legalization bills. Some cannabis advocates have said the current makeup of the Senate, whose members were elected last November, could be friendlier to legalization than those in the past. Some opponents to legalization have retired, and some new members had voted in favor of it when they were representatives in the House. 

Thursday’s 272-109 House cleared a two-thirds majority, which is necessary to override a gubernatorial veto. Gov. Chris Sununu has been skeptical of legalization in recent years, and has argued that the state should hold off on approving it while the opioid crisis continues. 

This story was written by Ethan DeWitt, a reporter at the New Hampshire Bulletin, where this story first appeared.

New Hampshire Bulletin is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. New Hampshire Bulletin maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Dana Wormald for questions: info@newhampshirebulletin.com. Follow New Hampshire Bulletin on Facebook and Twitter.