State Senate Democratic Leader Jeff Woodburn testifies in favor of marijuana legalization, at the State House on Feb. 21, 2017

Feb 21, 2017 1:58 PM

Battle over legalizing marijuana kicks off in NH state Senate


CONCORD – The top Democrat in the state Senate says when it comes to marijuana laws, New Hampshire needs "to be more progressive and more open. We do not want to become Mississippi of the northeast."

But a Republican state senator who’s among those leading the opposition to a bill that would legalize the use of up to one ounce of marijuana by people 21 and older says "children can be hurt" if the measure becomes law.

State Senate Minority Leader Jeff Woodburn, a sponsor of the bill, told NH1 News on Tuesday that “reform is needed and we need to be pushing it.”

His bill, 233-FN, also would set up a study committee of lawmakers “that would meet as necessary to create all the framework and the bureaucracy and just determine a whole lot of different issues to what marijuana legalization would look like.”

Woodburn said in most other states where the recreational use of marijuana has been legalized, it’s mostly come through referendums or petitions. Woodburn says his bill would allow "the government, the police, the bureaucracy, being involved in the process."

Voters in Massachusetts and Maine last November approved the recreational use of marijuana. And New Hampshire remains the only state in New England where people are subject to arrest and prosecution for possessing small amounts of marijuana.

"All of our neighbors have either passed legalization or they’re moving towards legalization. So New Hampshire becomes this odd one out," Woodburn explained.

And the lawmaker from the North Country argued that “we need to be more progressive and more open. We do not want to become Mississippi of the northeast, where people have to worry about driving through the state. It’s like driving through the south in the '60s. This is not something that we need to be proud of. We need to get with the program, and if we want to attract young people, we need to be more progressive, more thoughtful about what we need to do to compete for these entrepreneurs, these business people, these professionals that we want residing in the Granite State.”

Woodburn talked to NH1 News minutes after testifying about his bill in front of the Judiciary Committee.

Gannon: ‘Kids are going to see a green light’

On that committee is freshman Sen. Bill Gannon, who’s opposed to the bill. Bringing up the Granite State’s heroin and opioid epidemic, Gannon told NH1 News that if the bill becomes law, "I think we’ll have more deaths from this. We had numerous testimony that it is a gateway drug."

"We’re in the middle of an opioid crisis," the lawmaker from Sandown added. "We’ve got a problem in New Hampshire. It’s not going to help to have more drugs."

And he warned that by allowing those older than 21 to legally smoke marijuana, "kids are going to see a green light."

He compared the situation to beer, and that kids will think "that if it’s OK for adults to do beer," it will be OK for minors as well.

The hearing on the Senate bill came two weeks after the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee voted 14-2 to approve HB640, a bill that would decriminalize possession of one ounce or less of marijuana. That measure could get a vote by the full House of Representatives on March 9.

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu is on the record as favoring decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana.

Gannon said that Woodburn’s bill could pass the Judiciary committee, but he predicted it would die after deadlocking 12-12 in the full Senate.

Gannon said that if the measure did pass, he would try to derail it through the courts.

"How can we be legalizing things that are against the federal law?" he asked. "Do we have any right at all to act on marijuana when it’s a class A federal substance? I’d like the court to advise us on that."

Woodburn acknowledged "that realistically it’s a tough uphill battle. I know the governor and the (GOP) leadership don’t want this bill. They want to be settled on decriminalization, and that’s as far as we go."

But he added that "we need to keep the pressure going. The people want this. This is their government and we need to listen to the people."

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