Op-ed: It’s Time to Get Cannabis Legalization Done

By Hon. Tim Egan, Devon Chaffee, Karen O’Keefe

May 28, 2024

The New Hampshire House of Representatives has repeatedly approved cannabis legalization only to see its bills die in the state Senate. For the first time ever, the Senate passed a legalization bill this month and the governor is on board. The House should not let this opportunity slip away.

We have advocated for legalization for many years and the Senate bill is far from our model. Significant changes were made to HB 1633 to pass in a Senate that defeated legalization just last year and to avoid the governor’s veto pen. But the NH Senate’s HB 1633 is still an important step forward. It would legalize something that over 70% of Granite Staters agree should be legal and would prevent further human suffering.

New Hampshire law enforcement reported more than 1,000 arrests for cannabis possession in 2021. Each of those arrests involve trauma, stress, expenses, and a life-altering record. Some surely include some pretrial incarceration.

HB 1633, as amended in the Senate, would legalize adults’ possession of up to two ounces starting on January 1, 2026, along with specified amounts of cannabis concentrates and infused cannabis products. Now, anyone possessing up to ¾ of an ounce faces a $100 fine with escalating penalties if they are caught more than twice within three years. Those caught with over 3 ⁄ 4 of an ounce — including for amounts that are legal in all neighboring states — face a misdemeanor and up to a year in jail.

In addition to stopping these arrests and citations, the Senate-passed bill would prevent discrimination that destroys lives. It prevents people from losing their children, their professional and occupational licenses, and their medical care for the responsible use of cannabis. Americans have died after being denied organ transplants due to cannabis use. HB 1633 would ensure that doesn’t happen in New Hampshire. The bill also expands the cannabis possession convictions that qualify for annulment to the legalized amounts.

The House mustn’t let the opportunity slip away to stop this suffering.

We urge the House to concur with the Senate’s changes to ensure legalization gets past the finish line. We fear that a committee of conference would kill the bill. The Senate President has repeatedly made it clear he would prefer HB 1633 die. And under Senate rules, he has complete control over who gets assigned to any committee of conference. If the conference committee does not agree on a new version, the bill dies. Members can refuse to sign a report and kill the bill.

We recognize the Senate bill has flaws. It includes criminal penalties we believe are too high for consuming cannabis in a vehicle and for multiple offenses for smoking in public. We are also concerned about the regulatory structure. The Senate version sets up a franchise model with only 15 stores, as required by the governor. Unlike many legalization states, the Senate bill does not automatically allow alternative treatment centers (ATCs, which sell therapeutic cannabis) to also serve adult-use consumers, although they can apply to operate one retail and one production license each and a criteria for licensure is past cannabis industry experience. We also regret that it does not exempt patients from the “franchise fee,” although sales at ATCs would not be subject to the fee.

On the positive side, the Senate version includes amendments to help address concerns about excessive market control. Whereas the House bill allows individuals to own up to three of its 15 initial cannabis stores, the Senate bill limits ownership to a single business in each category. The Senate’s bill also includes a guarantee for growers with New Hampshire agriculture experience by requiring that a minimum of five licenses for cannabis cultivation facilities be awarded to growers with demonstrated New Hampshire agriculture experience.

Legalization allows for regulation and economic benefits. Regulation means more safety. It brings control over how cannabis products are grown, processed, and packaged and what methods and chemicals are used in cultivation. Legal cannabis products are lab-tested and labeled for dosage, while unregulated cannabis often contains hazardous pesticides and other contaminants. Legalization also allows for age-gating sales and consumer education. In a legal, regulated market, the proceeds from sales to New Hampshire residents will go to Granite State farmers and other licensees instead of the illicit market and neighboring states. And the taxes (or “franchise fees”) will go to New Hampshire’s coffers instead of across the borders.

While we will be strongly advocating for changes to the regulatory structure in 2025, passage of HB 1633 starts the process of legalization and regulation.

Throughout our careers in advocacy and — in Rep. Egan’s case — the New Hampshire General Court, we have seen it is far easier to fix an existing law than it is to pass a brand new one. With uncertainty on the horizon — including new state senators and a new governor in 2025, it is vitally important that the House seize this opportunity to legalize cannabis and increase freedom.

The bill can and should be adjusted in future legislative sessions to improve it. But you can’t fix something that never got passed into law.

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CATEGORIES: CANNABIS

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