Slow but steady wins the race, according to the old adage. Will that ring true in New Hampshire? Maybe. For now, at least, an effort to legalize marijuana inched one step closer to the governor’s desk after passing a House vote for the second time.
Green “yes” buttons lit up the House floor as a vote to legalize marijuana passed by a 163-vote margin. New Hampshire remains the only state in New England without legalized cannabis for adult use. Although it seems the state is looking to close the gap and join the ranks of its fellow New England states, the New Hampshire Senate still gets to have its say.
The History of House Bill 639
It should be no surprise that House Bill 639 passed a full House vote recently. After all, it already passed a full House vote back in February. However, the measure needed to head to the Ways & Means Committee, where it underwent some revisions and amendments before returning to the House floor.
One significant change to the measure put the state’s existing Liquor Commission in charge of regulating the legal marijuana market. Initially, the proposal sought to establish a new, independent commission for the job. Instead, the Liquor Commission would be renamed the Liquor and Cannabis Commission and would take over management and regulation of the legal cannabis industry in addition to the liquor market.
Approved in a 234 to 127 vote during the initial vote, the amendments proposed by the Ways & Means Committee or pressure from constituents only strengthened the resolve of the marijuana movement. The second House vote saw support for the bill increase, passing in a vote of 272 to 109.
What’s In House Bill 639?
Sponsored by Majority Leader Jason Osborne (R) and Minority Leader Matthew Wilhelm (D), House Bill 639 would legalize marijuana possession and sales for adults over 21. The measure would not cap the number of marijuana businesses licensed to do business in the state. However, localities could limit or ban marijuana businesses from operating in their area.
The legislation would also establish employment protections for state and local government workers who consume marijuana in their off time. Additionally, applications for professional and occupational licenses could not be denied because of cannabis use. However, the measure stops short of allowing the home cultivation of cannabis.
Under the bill, New Hampshire would tax cannabis sales at 12.5% of the product’s value in their final form at the wholesale level. Once the costs of legalization are covered, $100,000 in tax revenue would fund data collection and reporting of the health impacts of cannabis regulation and prohibition. The remaining tax revenue funds would be distributed to cities and towns to offset the education tax, fund substance abuse programs, and hire and train drug recognition experts. Tax revenue from cannabis sales would also support the New Hampshire retirement system to offset its unfunded accrued liability.
A majority report from the Ways & Means Committee says it is unclear what kind of tax revenue New Hampshire could expect to draw from legal cannabis sales. Members suggest that revenue may be negligible for the first two years and could build over time. After reviewing the sales trajectory of other states enacting cannabis legislation, members hope there are considerable prospects for growth.
The Path Forward
The House’s response to legalization efforts seems promising. However, the real test comes when the Senate takes up the measure for a vote. Traditionally, the Senate is where legalization efforts die in New Hampshire, as the governing body has historically opposed cannabis reform efforts. Only last year, the Senate rejected two House-passed measures seeking cannabis reform.
While the make-up of the House and Senate have changed after last year’s election, Republicans still control the Senate, and many continue to staunchly oppose cannabis legalization. Yet, most of their constituents support cannabis reform. Polling by the University of New Hampshire indicates more than two-thirds of New Hampshire residents support the proposed legislation to legalize marijuana.
Even if the Senate manages to pass House Bill 639, that doesn’t mean New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu (R) supports signing the measure into law. Gov. Sununu consistently opposed legalization efforts, claiming earlier in the year that he was not confident that any marijuana legalization measure would make it to his desk during this legislative session. He expressed hesitation about signing the bill, particularly in light of New Hampshire’s fentanyl and opioid epidemic.
Although the governor’s comments seem disheartening, he has indicated he may slowly soften his stance in response to public support of cannabis legalization. During a debate before re-election, he announced that cannabis reform in New Hampshire might be inevitable. However, he hoped the state would be patient about moving forward with efforts to legalize the drug. It remains to be seen what the governor would do if this piece of legislation reached his desk.
Supporters Continue to Push for Reform
Lawmakers and cannabis supporters hope this year is different. They say cannabis reform in the state is long overdue. Bill sponsor and Minority Leader Matthew Wilhelm says New Hampshire’s neighbors continue to benefit from cannabis legalization. At the same time, New Hampshire fails to allow its residents to benefit from safer testing and regulation.
House Majority Leader Jason Osborne revealed in a press release that he wants to see HB 639 succeed and hopes the measure pushes gangsters and thugs out of the marijuana market, thus providing New Hampshire residents with access to safe cannabis products while protecting children from age-inappropriate products.
The fate of House Bill 639 rests in the New Hampshire Senate, which will be the next governmental body to take up consideration of the measure.
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