A diverse coalition backs legalizing pot, but opposition still exists from Gov., police

Jan. 25—CONCORD — A diverse coalition of supporters came together behind legislation Wednesday that would legalize the sale of marijuana to adults in New Hampshire.

It would be the last state in New England to do so.

This 2023 campaign, however, faces the same opposition from law enforcement and reluctance from Gov. Chris Sununu that has blocked similar efforts in the past decade.

House Majority Leader Jason Osborne, R-Auburn and House Democratic Leader Matt Wilhelm of Manchester jointly offered their bill (HB 639) to permit adults over 21 to buy and possess up to four ounces of cannabis that licensed retail establishments would sell.

The legislation would permit home cultivation and subject all sales of cannabis to the state's 8.5% Room and Meals Tax currently applied to restaurant meals, hotel rooms and car rentals.

The liberal American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire and the fiscally conservative Americans for Prosperity are also backing this measure.

"All of our neighbors have some form of legalization. We are watching our constituents travel across the border to buy product, letting money cross that border and it's time to bring that money back to our state to help our constituents," Osborne said at a news conference.

Wilhelm noted more than 70% of residents in New Hampshire polls said they support legalization.

"We remain the only state where Granite Staters are still arrested for simple possession," Wilhelm said.

Under this bill, the state's retirement system would receive 80% of the profits to support pension benefits for public employees, with 10% going toward substance abuse prevention, 5% to communities that allow these businesses and the other 5% for law enforcement training.

The state Department of Revenue estimates New Hampshire would generate $24 million if it proportionally had the same level of sales that occurred in Massachusetts, or $12.2 million if it reached the level of sales in Maine.

The governor's office released a statement pointing to state laws he had signed to expand the state's medical marijuana program, to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana and to assist in annulling past convictions.

"It is important to remember that the Legislature has never sent a legalization bill to the governor's desk — it's failed in the Senate repeatedly, in both Republican-held years and Democrat-held years," the Sununu office statement said.

"With teen drug use and overdoses on the rise, it is not anticipated that the Legislature will see this as a time to ignore the data and move it forward."

Sununu has said legalization could happen in the future but "now is not the time," while opioid overdose deaths rose in Manchester and Nashua last year.

"If the concern is that individuals will come into contact with opioids, that is the situation that happens right now with an unregulated market," said Matt Simon, an executive with Prime Alternative Treatment Center, which operates dispensaries of medical marijuana in the state.

"This should be seen as something that reduces that kind of access and reduces opioid addiction."

Osborne declined comment on the conversations he had with Sununu, while expressing optimism for the effort since three state senators are also co-sponsoring the bill.

"I am sure that debate will take place... I can't predict which way it will come down," Osborne said.

Senate President Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, has vowed to keep opposing these bills.

Bedford Police Chief John Bryfonski led the opposition on behalf of the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police.

"We used to say, well, the jury is not in with respect to the legalization of cannabis in United States," Bryfonski testified during a hearing in Representatives Hall. "Today the facts are in, ladies and gentlemen. The undeniable fact is the legalization of cannabis and commercialization of cannabis is creating a public health hazard, is harmful to our young people who are the next generation."

Richard Van Winkler, retired superintendent of the Cheshire County House of Corrections, said since he first lobbied legalization 16 years ago, 21 states have legalized it.

"The state should support it now because it is smart and it is responsible," he added.

Rep. Dan Eaton, D-Stoddard, is authoring an alternative bipartisan bill (HB 544) that would legalize marijuana sold to adults at retail stores that the State Liquor Commission would operate.

Last year, the House approved the concept but the state Senate rejected it.

klandrigan@unionleader.com