New Hampshire House lawmakers are taking up a bill that could be used as a vehicle to legalize marijuana through a quasi hybridized state-run and privately licensed market—though there is significant confusion about the details of the proposed legalization amendment, which some advocates originally characterized as an effective compromise but now see as potentially unworkable.
The House Commerce and Consumer Affairs Committee voted to reconsider SB98—a bill on the unrelated subject of alcohol license payments—on Tuesday and then discussed Chairman John Hunt’s (R) legalization amendment, which which members will vote on during an executive session next week.
This follows the Republican governor’s recent policy pivot to back ending prohibition under a state-run model and the Senate voting last week to create a study commission to examine potential legalization models.
This month, the Senate also rejected a marijuana legalization bill sponsored by bipartisan House leadership and tabled a separate non-commercial legalization proposal, both of which had cleared the full House.
The question before the panel on Tuesday largely came down to timing: Should the House move ahead with the state-run legalization amendment to an unrelated bill and potentially enact the reform this year, or should it retain yet another standalone legalization measure hasn’t been acted on at this point and return to the issue next year after a study commission potentially looks into the issue?
“Some people were not supportive of any marijuana legislation, no matter what,” Hunt said on Tuesday. “What occurred here is that—yes, we did have, out of the blue, a second thought about the marijuana legislation.”
“What I would say to you is that the issue is whether this is something we want to get done or whether we just wait,” he said.
While the committee moved to reconsider SB98 and leave the door open for the chairman’s amendment to be voted on next week, the discussion on Tuesday revealed deep confusion among members and stakeholders over seemingly contradictory language in the proposed revision as drafted.
Matt Simon, director of public and government relations at Prime Alternative Treatment Centers of New Hampshire, offered a Dickensian take on the proposal, saying “it is the best of amendments and it is the worst of amendments.”
He said that he was prepared to speak to the “compromise” proposal, pointing to language in the amendment that would still permit existing medical dispensaries to be licensed to sell cannabis to adult consumers, even while the state’s Liquor Commission would play the key role in the market through state-run stores. Under the amendment as drafted, regulators would also be able to issue licenses to private individuals to operate agency shops on a seasonal or annual basis.
But after hearing the committee discussion, Simon said he was left with the impression that members were no longer talking about “an attempt to actually create a workable compromise between the state control model and a model that included private sales.” Instead, it appeared that the conversation had turned to a singularly state-run system.
(Disclosure: Simon supports Marijuana Moment’s work through a monthly pledge on Patreon.)
Michael Holt of the state Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) told the panel that, “from the perspective of the of the state’s therapeutic cannabis program, the state control model proposed works only because it allows dual use licenses for [alternative treatment centers] to participate in retail sales of cannabis.”
“It’s the only way this model works,” he said. “Absent this allowance, the viability of the ATCs to continue to participate in the state’s therapeutic cannabis program will be severely threatened—and the viability of the therapeutic cannabis program in general would be in jeopardy.”
Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies at the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), didn’t participate in Tuesday’s meeting—but a letter she sent to committee members and an op-ed she wrote for The Concord Monitor were referenced at several points. She raised legal questions about the potential risks of federal preemption under a state-controlled legalization model, which unlike any other state-level marijuana market in the country would essentially direct state employees to affirmatively violate the Controlled Substances Act (CSA).
Given the potential preemption, there are concerns that the state may enact legalization but ultimately abandon the effort altogether due to the risks, O’Keefe wrote. So, at the very least, she said, “New Hampshire’s legalization approach should include a safety valve to automatically allow private sales in case state-run stores ultimately do not open.”
It’s expected that the amendment will be revised before members vote on adoption next week, even if only to clean up internally contradictory language. But the hope for many stakeholders is that lawmakers will recommit to pursuing a hybrid model allowing medical dispensaries to obtain dual licenses while still giving the state the option of operating storefronts like it currently does for alcohol and allowing regulators to license private individuals to operate agency shops.
Hunt said at the close of Tuesday’s public hearing that he will be sharing the feedback to the Liquor Commission and rework his amendment with the goal of figuring out “some way to keep the ATCs in it, because everybody seems to want a hug an ATC this week.”
As drafted, the amendment would also allow adults 21 and older to possess up to four ounces of cannabis or 20 grams of concentrates. Home cultivation would not be permitted, and no tax would be imposed on cannabis products.
Penalties for public smoking would be increased. And it further calls for municipal votes in November 2024 for cities that wish to opt in to allowing cannabis establishments and retailers.
Meanwhile, the House separately defeated a different marijuana legalization amendment that was being proposed as part of a Medicaid expansion bill last week.
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An earlier House-passed bill to legalize through the state model was unanimously defeated in the Senate last year. But with the chamber passing the study commission legislation last week, it seems the Senate is more open to considering some level of reform—though several key lawmakers and the governor have signaled that it would need to wait until next year.
Sen. Tim Lang (R), who is one of three freshmen GOP senators who supported the state-run legalization bill last session while serving in the House, said that he doesn’t think the reform should be advanced “rapidly” and that there are certain issues with the prior state-run measure that “still need to be covered.”
The bill is a “great starting point for us,” he said. “I don’t anticipate we get it done this session, but we will get it done this term.”
Advocates and stakeholders have consistently expressed concerns about the prospects of a state-controlled cannabis model, preferring a more conventional market like the one the House majority and minority leaders sponsored and that the Senate defeated earlier this month.
Meanwhile, the Senate also moved to table legislation last week that would have allowed patients and designated caregivers to cultivate up to three mature plants, three immature plants and 12 seedlings for personal therapeutic use.
After the Senate rejected reform bills in 2022, the House included legalization language as an amendment to separate criminal justice-related legislation—but that was also struck down in the opposite chamber.
Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.