Cannabis legalization set for negotiations after frustrations among House supporters

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By New Hampshire Bulletin

May 31, 2024

The New Hampshire House voted Thursday to send a marijuana legalization bill to further negotiations, after cannabis supporters voiced deep frustrations with changes to the bill by the Senate.

In a 261-108 vote, the House requested a “committee of conference” with the Senate to help bridge disagreements over how the state should regulate retail cannabis. Later Thursday, the Senate agreed to the committee.

The bill is the primary legislation this year to legalize cannabis, a year after Gov. Chris Sununu said he would sign a cannabis legalization bill that met certain conditions.

Both the House and Senate versions of the bill would allow people 21 and older to possess and consume cannabis in New Hampshire. But when it came to authorizing retail sales, the House’s version of the bill had included a licensee model, which would have allowed business owners to purchase licenses and run retail outlets with certain freedoms.

In its version, the Senate replaced that approach with a “franchise” model, which would allow private businesses to run stores but empower the state’s Liquor Commission to exert stronger control over the layout of stores and the advertising of the products.

That Senate change and others, such as one introducing criminal penalties for public consumption of cannabis and another allowing retail stores to sell therapeutic cannabis, have turned many House cannabis supporters against the Senate’s version of the bill.

Speaking on the floor, Rep. Kevin Verville, a Deerfield Republican, said he was “staunchly in favor of cannabis legalization,” a position he said he had held since being a teenager. “But this is not the New Hampshire solution,” he said of the Senate bill. “This bill is not what we’re looking for.”

Verville argued the Senate’s franchise model would benefit large national businesses. The bill would authorize 15 retail licenses across the state, and allow individuals or companies to purchase up to three licenses each.

“If I was big pot, I would love this bill, too,” Verville said. “But I’m not big pot; I’m little pot.”

Some supporters had argued the House should pass the Senate’s bill because it has the best chance of being approved by Sununu. In a radio interview this week, Sununu said he would sign the Senate’s version of the bill if the House agreed to it, according to New Hampshire Journal.

But Verville contested the notion that this year was the only chance to pass cannabis legalization. “I do not subscribe to the premise that something is better than nothing,” he said.

Rep. John Hunt, a Rindge Republican and the chairman of the House Commerce Committee, made an effort to convince the House to pass the Senate amended bill, even despite the disagreements. He said the Senate had made the changes to scare the House away.

“That’s the whole point of what the Senate did,” Hunt said. “The Senate made this bill the ugliest, most government-intrusive, most overregulated marijuana statute they could amend at the midnight hour, for one singular purpose: For you to vote no. If you vote no, they won. They got what they wanted, which is to kill this bill.”

The argument was not persuasive; the House voted overwhelmingly against the motion to concur with the Senate’s changes without negotiating, 117-252. But the chamber also voted against killing the bill outright by nonconcurring with the Senate changes, 173-196.

The formation of the committee of conference means representatives of the two chambers, four from the House and three from the Senate, will have until the end of the day on Thursday, June 6, to come up with a final amended bill that all negotiators can agree to.

If the committee can agree, the bill will go to final votes in the House and Senate. If the committee cannot agree, the bill will die.

Speaking after the vote, Rep. Erica Layon, a Derry Republican and the prime sponsor of the original version of HB 1633, said she hopes the committee can agree to certain “fallback provisions” – mechanisms by which the legalization provisions can be salvaged even if the retail approach proves faulty.

But she said she mostly hopes the Senate is interested in negotiating.

“Now the ball is in their court,” Layon said. “It’s clear that the House wants legalization, but they won’t do anything just to get legalization. Does the Senate want to work with us? And is the governor willing to work on something? That’s the big question.”

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  • New Hampshire Bulletin

    The New Hampshire Bulletin is an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to keeping the people of the Granite State informed about the issues that matter most. Because the activities inside the halls of power are just one part of the picture, the Bulletin staff follows the threads of policy into communities throughout New Hampshire to tell the people’s stories. https://newhampshirebulletin.com/

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