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Apr 11, 2017 2:53 PM

Fight over marijuana decriminalization moves to NH state Senate

NH1.COM

CONCORD – The battle over decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana kicked off Tuesday in the New Hampshire state Senate.

The Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on a bill that would allow possession of less than an ounce of marijuana. The measure, HB 340, was overwhelming approved by a 318-36 vote last month in the state House of Representatives. Bills to decriminalize marijuana have now passed through that chamber eight times over the past ten years, but they’ve repeatedly been shot down in the Senate.

The two Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee, Bette Lasky, of Nashua, and Martha Hennessey, of Hanover, as well as Republican Harold French of Franklin, support the measure. All three introduced an amendment that made minor changes to the House bill.

“I ran on a decrim platform and I do like the bill that came out of the House,” French, who narrowly defeated Democratic incumbent Andrew Hosmer last November, told NH1 News.

Lasky, who was first elected to the Senate in 2008, said she thinks marijuana decriminalization will finally pass in the chamber.

“The Senate has changed. We have a lot of different members than we had just two years ago,” Lasky told NH1 News. “I think people are realizing in the long run it’s not helping us by prosecuting young kids and prosecuting people with small amounts of marijuana.”

Republican state Sen. Sharon Carson of Londonderry, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, opposes the measure.

“I don’t support it. But that doesn’t mean that I won’t work to create a product that is good for the people of the state of New Hampshire,” she said.

First term Republican state Sen. Bill Gannon of Sandown opposes decriminalizing marijuana.

He told NH1 News “this is lowering the bar and kids are watching us. We’re their role models. And if they see us reducing it, they’re going to think it’s a green light and police chiefs, all nine in my district agree, it’s a gateway drug. We don’t want to send that message to kids that it’s OK to do.”

If the bill makes it to the governor’s office, Gov. Chris Sununu seems inclined to sign it 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.

Push to lower marijuana decriminalization level to half an ounce

Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley introduced an amendment to the bill that would lower the decriminalization level to half an ounce, and make possession of more than that amount a misdemeanor. The Republican lawmaker from Wolfeboro told NH1 News he had a problem with what he called “technical issues” in the House bill.

“I think that the fact that children or 18 and under would have to appear in an adult court is a problem. I think the fine at $100 is so low that there will be no diversion. And I think that half an ounce is a more appropriate level,” he said.

Bradley teamed up with law enforcement leaders in putting together his amendment.

“I hope that the sponsors of the bill will work with law enforcement to address some of those concerns. That’s what I’m trying to do. I actually support decrim but I think it needs to be done in a way that there is least some level of buy in from law enforcement,” Bradley explained.

French and Lasky didn’t seem enamored with Bradley’s amendment.

“I don’t think it’s better than the status quo,” Lasky said.

While Gannon said he could live with Bradley’s measure, he told NH1 News he’d rather make the decriminalization limit an eighth of an ounce, which he said was around eight joints.

State Rep. Renny Cushing, the author of the House bill, testified at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.

The six-term Democrat from Hampton told NH1 News “we want to work to really address the problem and that’s making criminals out of people who possess a small amount of marijuana. We want to put an end to putting people in jail and deal with marijuana as a public health issue, not a criminal justice issue.”

Asked about the Senate’s repeated inability to pass the measure, Cushing said “I can just tell you it’s been very frustrating to work diligently in the House to get a vote like we did, almost ten to one, and then have it arrive in the Senate. But that being said I’m not going to pre-judge what the Senate will do.”

Last month Bradley and Senate Minority Leader Jeff Woodburn both predicted on NH1 Newsmakers that marijuana decriminalization would finally pass their chamber.

WATCH NH1 Newsmakers: State Senate party leaders weigh in on marijuana decriminalization, election law reform, and more

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