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New Hampshire Again Mulls Path to Legalization

Will they, or won’t they? New Hampshire is again considering a path toward legalizing marijuana in the state. However, the state seems to have a love-hate relationship with the idea. It seems that most residents love the idea, while politicians, including Governor Chris Sununu (R), hate the prospect, at least the way it’s been proposed until now. Yet, that isn’t stopping a new commission from studying how to pursue marijuana legalization under a system strictly controlled by the state.

New Hampshire is the only state in New England where recreational cannabis remains illegal. Depending on the findings of the new commission, it may stay that way for the foreseeable future.

What’s Going on with Marijuana Legalization in New Hampshire?

A new commission in New Hampshire wants to study how to pursue the legalization of marijuana but in a closed system controlled by the state. Gov. Sununu signed legislation allowing the commission to explore policy ideas and proposals that would legalize the drug while keeping it away from children and prevent specific communities in the state from becoming oversaturated with marijuana retailers. The commission must also explore ways local governments can ban or limit state-run dispensaries or retailers in their communities.

The commission comprises 18 members and will consult with the New Hampshire Cannabis Association. Commission members are supposed to include representatives from the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police, the New Hampshire Bankers Association, the New Hampshire Liquor Commission, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire, the New Hampshire Medical Society, and the Community for Alcohol and Drug-free Youth, plus five members each from the state Senate and House. The Governor, the state’s Attorney General, or their designees can also serve on the commission.

Under the current plan, the commission’s final recommendations must be developed into a bill that can pass the state House and Senate before gaining the governor’s signature during the 2024 legislative session.

Instead of an open-market cannabis model, New Hampshire wants the commission to focus on exploring marijuana legalization measures that give the state complete and total control of the industry. In theory, the market would be like current state liquor sales.

Critics of the commission say any plan to establish a state-run marijuana legalization approach creates a monopoly and restricts the power of growers and cultivators to set their prices. The state-run approach may also limit opportunities for members of communities in New Hampshire disproportionately impacted by years of cannabis prohibition.

A History of Marijuana Rejections

Although some cannabis advocates applaud the governor for signing legislation allowing the formation of the commission that will study marijuana legalization, many remain skeptical, and for a good reason. After signing the legislation forming the legalization commission, Gov. Sununu said he supported legalizing marijuana in the right way “rather than risk a poorly thought-out framework that inevitably could pass under future governors or legislatures.” However, many question the governor’s commitment to marijuana legalization, considering his past comments and opposition to marijuana legalization bills. For years, the governor has been an outspoken critic of marijuana legalization. Gov. Sununu previously met with leading national anti-marijuana legalization advocates to help him devise campaign strategies against legalization measures.

The governor’s reversal in his longstanding anti-recreational marijuana position may seem like a breath of fresh air. However, others question his timing. Gov. Sununu’s sudden change of heart, which he attributes to “knowing a majority of our residents support legalization,” feels less than genuine. Democratic House Leader Matt Wilhelm, who co-sponsored a marijuana legalization measure this session, says the governor conveniently waited until the day after legalization legislation was defeated in the Senate to weigh in with his new marijuana-positive stance. The bill rejected by the Senate would have allowed adults to possess up to four ounces of marijuana and would tax cannabis at 12.5 percent.

At the beginning of the legislative session, Gov. Sununu predicted marijuana legalization would never reach his desk. It is natural to question the governor’s new-found commitment to cannabis legalization when his support early in the session could have signaled to lawmakers that they should vote in favor of a bill proposing recreational legalization. Instead, he chose to wait until all legalization proposals were defeated to show that he supports a path toward legalizing recreational marijuana in New Hampshire.

New Hampshire may be making little progress on recreational legalization, but the state decriminalized marijuana for personal use in 2017. The new law establishing the formation of a legalization commission also removed a barrier for qualifying patients to get medicinal cannabis for severe pain. However, it also banned the sale of hemp-derived products containing more than .3 percent THC on a dry-weight basis.

Legalizing Cannabis, Who Wins?

In nearby Massachusetts, sales of recreational and medicinal marijuana transactions hit $151.8 million in June, a windfall for the state and cannabis retailers in the area. Data also suggests that Massachusetts generated more tax revenue from cannabis than alcohol for the first time last year. Cannabis sales in Connecticut had steadily risen since January when the state’s first recreational dispensary opened its doors. In June, recreational sales hit $12.5 million, with an additional $11.3 million in medicinal cannabis sales. Despite hardships in Canada and the West Coast, cannabis seems to be booming in New England, helping to keep the overall cannabis industry afloat.

Demand in New England is there. However, it remains to be seen how a state-run and state-controlled cannabis system would impact cannabis growers, cultivators, and product producers. Who wins? Without competition from other retailers, state-run retailers may not be able to offer the product range and prices that the free market can give customers. Critics have already complained about state-run liquor sales, calling the practice a monopoly. Others claim a lack of oversight leads to illegal liquor sales and other potential problems because of the state-run model. Proponents of marijuana legalization hope these are issues the newly formed marijuana legalization commission can review and potentially address.

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