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May 11, 2017 3:18 PM

After defeating it 8 times in past 10 years, NH Senate approves marijuana decriminalization


CONCORD - New Hampshire’s state Senate voted 17-6 Thursday to approve a measure that would decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana.

After the vote, Gov. Chris Sununu said he'll sign the bill into law.

Similar bills have passed through the state House of Representatives eight times over the past decade. But they’ve been repeatedly shot down in the Senate.

Earlier this year the bill overwhelming passed the House again. And this time around, the results in the Senate were different, as the compromise bill enjoyed the backing of the chamber’s majority Republican and minority Democrat leadership.

The top Democrat in the chamber, Senate Minority Leader Jeb Woodburn said "the times they are a-changing....It’s an idea whose time has come.”

And Republican Sen. Harold French of Franklin said “it is time that New Hampshire listens to the will of our citizens.”

Republican Sen. Jeb Bradley, the Majority Leader who co-authored the compromise amendment that passed the full Senate, defended his deal from critics, saying “compromise is an art, not a science.”

One of the leading opponents of marijuana decriminalization, GOP Sen. Bill Gannon of Sandown, said that the nine chiefs of police in his district opposed the bill, raising concerns that marijuana is a gateway drug. He added that “this is obviously the wrong message to be sending my children and the children of New Hampshire. Many will see this legislation as a green light.”

State Sen. Bob Guida argued the bill forces New Hampshire to "work at cross-purposes."

"As we try to entice high-tech companies...universally they require drug screening. And yet we're making it easier for people to utilize marijuana, which will disqualify us from many of those jobs," Guida told NH1 News.

"We've compromised the future of our workforce and we've compromised the future of our children," the Republican from Warren.

The bill will decriminalize possession of up to three-quarters of an ounce of marijuana. Under the agreement, there would be a $100 fine for the first and second offense, and those caught with possession of three-quarters or less of marijuana wouldn't face the possibility of a class B misdemeanor until a fourth offense.

It would also decriminalize five grams or less of hashish.

READ: 68% in new NH poll back marijuana decriminalization

Earlier this year the House passed by a 318-46 vote a bill (HB 640) that would decriminalize possession of less than an ounce of marijuana. The House is now expected to concur with the Senate bill.

Democratic State Rep. Renny Cushing of Hampton, the author of the House bill who took part in the negotiations on the Senate compromise, told NH1 News last week that supporters of his House measure would back the Senate compromise.

Asked Thursday about the meaning of the Senate vote, Cushing said "it means we're going to put an end to making criminals out of people who use a small amount of marijuana.

"The House has been waiting a decade for the Senate to get caught up with it and pass a decriminalization bill. I think there's a recognition that we're in a different era," he added.

Last November voters in Massachusetts and Maine voted to legalize the recreational use of marijuana. And this week Vermont’s legislature became the first in the nation to approve legalization of recreational marijuana

Cushing said "we're going to get in step with the rest of the region."

Sununu says he’ll sign the measure into law. He supported decriminalization during his campaign for governor last year. That’s a switch from the Republican governor’s predecessor, now U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan, who opposed decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana.

WATCH/READ: Sen. Hassan tells NH1 News she has ‘real concerns’ over marijuana decriminalization

In a statement minutes after the Senate vote, Gov. Chris Sununu wrote “I want to thank the legislature for passing common sense marijuana reform. I look forward to signing House Bill 640 into law.”

WATCH: Gov. Sununu weighs in on marijuana decriminalization

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