NH1 News Preview: Marijuana decriminalization bill faces crucial vote on Thursday
CONCORD – New Hampshire’s state Senate’s scheduled to vote Thursday on a measure that would decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana.
Similar bills have passed through the state House of Representatives eight times over the past decade. But they’ve been repeatedly shot in the Senate.
But this time around, the results in the Senate may be different, as the compromise bill enjoys the backing of the chamber’s majority Republican and minority Democrat leadership.
Last week the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a measure that would decriminalize possession of up to three-quarters of an ounce of marijuana. The compromise amendment was introduced by Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley and Democratic Sen. Bette Lasky, of Nashua.
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.
The panel approved the amendment by a three to two vote, with Lasky and the committee's other Democrat, Sen. Martha Hennessey, of Hanover, voting in favor of the plan, along with Republican Harold French of Franklin.
Republican Sen. Sharon Carson of Londonderry, the chair of the committee, as well as Sen. Bill Gannon of Sandown, opposed the amendment.
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.
Bradley told NH1 News last week that "I am very confident it will pass" the full chamber.
If it passes the Senate intact, a committee of conference would be needed to bring the House and Senate versions of the bill in-line.
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.
"For 40 years the House has been talking about decriminalization of marijuana. I think we’re read to do so. I think the House will go along with the Senate version," Cushing said.
If the marijuana decriminalization bill passes makes it to the Corner Office, Gov. Chris Sununu says he’ll 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.
Three weeks ago Sununu told NH1 News “I do believe in the decriminalization aspect of marijuana. Obviously not the full legalization. Those are two very different issues.”
Last November voters in Massachusetts and Maine voted to legalize the recreational use of marijuana.
Last week Bradley talked to NH1 News about his compromise amendment which faces a vote by the full Senate.
"I tried to pull all the parties together along with advocates for the bill and people who were opposed to the bill to try to make it something that everybody would live with and I think that’s the end product," he said.
"Clearly decriminalization has happened in states all through New England and around the country. I think we want to make sure that people who make a first time mistake, if you will, are not penalized for the rest of their life and I think the public supports that. But at the same time the way the bill came to us from the House, I thought needed some changes and so that’s what we have," he added.
Asked if law enforcement is on board regarding his compromise amendment, Bradley answered "I don’t think they support it, but again, I think it’s something that they can live with. So you have to ask them, but they worked to improve the bill, and that’s all I can ask."
Cushing emphasized that "I think what’s important is that we stop making criminals out of people who use a small amount of marijuana, that we don’t have students who use a little pot lose their student loans. That we don’t have veterans who use pot recreationally or for their own purposes get kicked out of their homes. That we stop spending $35,000 per year to incarcerate people who are convicted of possession of marijuana."
But Gannon, who opposed the bill, recently told NH1 News that “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.”
The New Hampshire state Senate chamber