New Hampshire lawmakers working on marijuana legalization legislation met on Tuesday to refine their plan to advance the reform this session, with members of a committee hashing out differences between competing proposals. The intent is to nail down a merged vehicle in a follow-up meeting on Wednesday.
The work session of the House Commerce and Consumer Affairs Liquor Subcommittee got started with a decent amount of pushback over the chair’s recently proposed amendment to a legalization bill, HB 639, from Majority Leader Jason Osborne (R) and Minority Leader Matt Wilhelm (D), which has been supported by advocates and industry stakeholders.
Certain members expressed opposition to the amendment from Chairman John Hunt (R), particularly as it concerned what was viewed as outsized regulatory deference to the state Liquor Commission without the main components of the original framework in the leadership-driven bill.
But by the end of the meeting, there seemed to be a willingness to move forward with a few key changes, including having the Liquor Commission regulate the adult-use market rather than give that role to a new independent cannabis commission.
The plan is also to remove provisions allowing home cultivation and annulling past marijuana convictions. Advocates would have liked to keep them, but there was widespread acknowledgement that legislation containing those components would not have enough support to be enacted over the objections of a hostile governor.
“To pass that bill as is, it’s got too many warts on it,” Hunt said at the meeting.
There is a separate home grow bill that’s also being considered by a different House committee, but its prospects are unclear at this stage of the session.
The Commerce panel will meet for a follow-up work session on Wednesday to figure out which amendments will be incorporated in HB 639. If it passes, it would go to another panel before potentially moving to the floor.
Here’s what HB 639 as introduced would accomplish:
Adults 21 and older would be able to purchase, possess and gift up to four ounces of cannabis and also grow up to six plants, only three of which could be mature.
A governor-appointed Cannabis Commission would be established to regulate the market and issue marijuana business licenses.
There would also be a 13-member advisory board that would support the commission and gather public input on the cannabis law.
There would not be any statewide cap on the number of marijuana businesses that could be licensed.
The commission and Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) would be responsible for coming up with a plan within 20 months of enactment to transition the state’s existing medical cannabis program and let adult-use retailers service medical marijuana patients if they get a therapeutic endorsement. Medical cannabis dispensaries could also apply to serve adult consumers if they demonstrate that patient access wouldn’t be compromised and that there wouldn’t be price hikes.
Adult-use marijuana sales would be subject to an 8.5 percent tax. That would not apply to medical cannabis products.
Eighty percent of marijuana tax revenue would support unfunded pension liabilities. One those are funded, the revenue would go to an education trust fund and property tax relief. Another 10 percent of revenue would be allocated for substance misused treatment. Localities with at least one marijuana retailer would get five percent, and the remaining five percent would support public safety agencies.
People with prior marijuana misdemeanor convictions or civil violations for cannabis possession would have their records automatically annulled.
Localities could limit or ban marijuana businesses from operating in their area. They could not ban delivery services, however.
There would be employment protections for state or local government workers who use marijuana off the job. Professional and occupational licenses couldn’t be denied or withdrawn because a person uses cannabis.
The legalization of possession and home cultivation would take effect immediately upon enactment, while regulators would have a year to promulgate rules to allow dispensaries to convert to dual retailers.
Marijuana companies could deduct business expenses from their taxes at the state level.
During Tuesday’s meeting, the chair said that, after the committee advances a finalized bill, members could then revisit a separate legalization bill, HB 544, which he feels stands a better chance of enactment.
HB 544, sponsored by Rep. Daniel Eaton (D), would create a system where the recreational marijuana market would consist of government-run stores, with the Liquor Commission tasked with regulating and administering the “cultivation, manufacture, testing, and retail sale of cannabis statewide.”
A representative of the state Department of Health and Human Services spoke at Tuesday’s meeting, and he commented that it seemed somewhat premature to take a position on the legislation given the committee’s back-and-forth over what direction they ultimately plan to take. He said that while it would be difficult for the department to develop an independent division that could implement the program under the timeline prescribed under HB 639, he wasn’t sure that the Liquor Commission would be the best regulatory body for the task.
Matt Simon, director of public and government relations at Prime Alternative Treatment Centers of New Hampshire, gave some guidance to members throughout the meeting and laid out how the various proposals could impact existing medical cannabis dispensaries in the state.
He told Marijuana Moment in a phone interview afterwards that he was “encouraged” to see the conversation move in a direction where members seem to be closer to alignment on a passable piece of legislation.
Simon also said that new provisions are likely to be added to HB 639 to mandate that testing be done by labs that are independent from companies that produce cannabis.
Meanwhile, several other legalization bills have also been filed this session, including barebones proposals to remove cannabis from the state’s controlled substances list and allow non-commercial home cultivation for adults.
While there’s optimism about the prospects of legalization finally moving in the Granite State this year, advocates still have work cut out for them.
Republicans held on to the both the House and Senate after last year’s election, and the latter chamber is where marijuana reform has faced its toughest obstacles in past sessions even as the House has repeatedly approved legalization bills. The Senate rejected two House-passed reform bills last year, including one that would have created a non-commercial cannabis program and another providing for commerce under a state-run model.
In the Senate, there were some shifts that favor reform. For example, a Democratic senator who opposed legalization efforts was replaced by a Republican who voted in favor of ending prohibition during his time as a House member.
Gov. Chris Sununu (R), who was reelected last year, remains opposed to legalization—but his more recent comments on the issue seem to show a softening of his position. He said during a debate last year that reform “could be inevitable,” but he added that states need to “be patient about how you do it.”
After the Senate rejected two reform bills last year, the House included legalization language as an amendment to separate criminal justice-related legislation—but that was also struck down in the opposite chamber.
The non-commercial legalization measure that was defeated had previously passed the House under Democratic control in 2020 but was defeated in the Senate at the committee stage.
Lawmakers also filed separate bills to put marijuana legalization on the state’s 2022 ballot, but the House rejected them.
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Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.