In the upcoming months, the New Hampshire state legislature will consider four separate bills that would alter existing state marijuana laws. HB 573, which would legalize medical marijuana, is expected to pass in both chambers and make New Hampshire the last state in New England to permit marijuana for medical purposes in mid-March. The Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee heard testimony on the three bills Thursday in Concord.
Medical marijuana supporters said they are optimistic that the bill will pass. While former Gov. John Lynch, D-N.H., vetoed two medical marijuana bills after the legislature could not reach a veto-proof majority, Gov. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., has said she will not veto the bill.
State Rep. Donna Schlachman, D-Exeter, who introduced the bill, said the New Hampshire House of Representatives should hold a vote by mid-March. “Crossover day,” the final day for the legislature to act on any remaining legislation, is April 4.
If the bill is passed, patients with qualifying medical conditions, ranging from cancer to glaucoma, will be required to establish a “three-month relationship” with the medical provider who proscribes them marijuana treatment, Schlachman said.
“These aren’t people who say, Oh, I have pain. Give me a prescription for medical marijuana,'” she said.
The bill is stricter than those of other states because it mandates patients to acquire a registration card from New Hampshire’s Department of Health and Human Services.
Once approved, patients may visit one of five alternative treatment centers that will open throughout the state after the bill is signed into law. The bill will also allow patients to grow their own marijuana plants.
“There are people who live way up in the North Country who may not have access to the centers, and transportation is an issue for some patients,” Schlachman said. “And it’s cheaper to grow your own.”
The bill has “excellent” odds of passing in both chambers of the legislature, Schlachman said. The bill was drafted in a bipartisan effort.
After hearing accounts from patients who suffered from debilitating diseases, State Rep. Will Infantine, R-Manchester, said he supports the legislation.
“Marijuana can let them die in peace, and if this helps them, so be it,” he said.
Legislators understand that they need to reform marijuana laws and avoid a legal “free-for-all” that could complicate drug reforms, Infantine said. For the bill to function effectively, legislators must work to ensure that marijuana is properly dispensed to patients and collaborate with non-profit medical marijuana companies to ease the process, he said.
The legislature will also consider three other marijuana-related bills, all of which were introduced by Republicans. HB 492 would legalize marijuana possession up to one ounce and allow individuals to grow up to 6 marijuana plants, HB 337 would legalize marijuana with no restrictions and HB 621 would reduce the punishment for the possession of less than one ounce of the drug.
State Rep. Bernie Benn, D-Hanover, said that federal officials have not been prosecuting people who possess less than one ounce of marijuana, despite existing federal statutes that prohibit possession.
While opponents to legalization argue that state legislators should not pass a law that contradicts federal policy, supporters said they believe states can influence the national drug debate.
“It’s time for states to move and tell the federal government they got it wrong,” Schlachman said.
Full legalization is the most sensible solution, Benn said.
“If we do it, do it all the way,” he said. “I personally would love to see marijuana legalized, would love to tax it and would think it’s a revenue for our state that we sorely need.”
Generational changes have led to looser marijuana laws, Infantine said.
“My generation isn’t afraid of it, but can understand it can be abused,” he said.
Infantine wonders how much time law enforcement officials devote to marijuana cases. Last year, Infantine received a letter about a Keene State College student who had been arrested for possessing less than an ounce of marijuana and subsequently lost his scholarship eligibility.
“We shouldn’t worry about someone with an ounce on them and cost them their lives,” he said. “I’m almost 50 years old, and I’m turning to going after hard drugs and getting realistic on marijuana.”
Hassan has not commented on whether she would veto bills that decriminalize marijuana possession.
Hassan may sign a bill that legalizes marijuana if budget concerns emerge, Benn said.
“If there’s money involved, and it could help the budgetary needs of the state, then that’s an incentive beyond the sense that some people think that we should be allowed to smoke marijuana,” he said.
Students interviewed said they support legalizing medical marijuana for patients suffering from debilitating illnesses.
“In some states it’s legal for recreational use,” Kelly McHugh ’14 said. “If it’s legalized, it’s going to be standardized, and it’s not going to have impurities. I don’t think there’s any reason for medical marijuana not to be legal.”
Almost 80 percent of New Hampshire residents support legalizing medical marijuana, according to a poll by WMUR-TV and the University of New Hampshire. Currently, 18 states and Washington, D.C. permit the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes.
In November, voters in Colorado and Washington approved ballot initiatives that legalized the possession, delivery and distribution of marijuana.