The New Hampshire legislature has sent a bill to the governor’s desk to create a commission tasked with preparing legislation to legalize marijuana through a system of state-run stores. And because the governor has concluded that legalization is “inevitable” in the state, he’s pushing for the novel regulatory framework, concerned that lawmakers might otherwise pass a bill less favorable to him with a veto-proof majority.
About a week after bicameral and bipartisan lawmakers reached an agreement on the incremental commission legislation in a conference committee, the House and Senate gave final approval to the measure in voice votes on Thursday, which is the legislative deadline for action this year.
The bill that the committee took up initially only required a commission to study the novel state stores idea for cannabis, a model that Gov. Chris Sununu (R) only recently endorsed after historically opposing cannabis legalization. But it was amended last week to include a mandate for the body to take its findings and draft a state-run legalization measure that legislators could then consider when they reconvene for the second half of the two-year session in January.
If the governor signs the bill into law, the commission’s work will be due December 1.
House Commerce and Consumer Affairs Committee Chairman John Hunt (R), who served as a conferee, has worked extensively on marijuana reform issues this year—including recent efforts to reach a compromise on legislation to enact legalization through a multi-tiered system that would include state-controlled shops, dual licensing for existing medical cannabis dispensaries and businesses privately licensed to individuals by state agencies.
Hunt’s panel reached an impasse on the complex legislation, which was being considered following Sununu’s surprise announcement that he backs state-run legalization and after the Senate defeated a more conventional, House-passed legalization bill from the chamber’s bipartisan leadership.
Recognizing that the legislature is positioned to enact some kind of reform, the governor has thrown his support behind the unique state-controlled legalization model, as he explained in an interview on CNBC on Wednesday.
“I’ve never been a big believer in terms of legalizing recreational marijuana, but the legislature is there,” he said. “We’re surrounded by I think 1,000 miles by states who have done it. Not only would the bill pass to let it happen, it probably would pass with the ability to override my veto.”
“Even though I might not like it, my responsibility is to set up a model that, long-term, is better than all the other states around us—that has the protections” through the state’s existing state-controlled liquor sales system, the governor said.
“With us controlling the retail on the marketing and the branding side, we would be able to control all that and we do it really well,” he said. “Our New Hampshire liquor stores are ranked one of the top five retailers in the country. So we have a model that works. Other states don’t really have that, and so we can build off of that.”
The governor said that legalization is “inevitable,” and “it’s going to happen.”
“So let’s provide it with protection,” Sununu said. “There’ll be some revenue from it—but you should never be legalizing more drugs for revenue. That has ethical and moral problems wrapped all around it. Other states did that we’re not going down that path. So I think if they can do it, we can get it done.”
While Sununu doesn’t seem to have any doubts that his legalization proposal would sail through the legislature, recent history raises some questions about Senate lawmakers’ appetite for the kind of reform he’s promoting.
A bill to enact a state-run marijuana program did pass the New Hampshire House last year—but it was unanimously defeated in the Senate.
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Meanwhile, the underlying legislation heading to the governor that the legalization study commission provisions were attached to would remove an existing requirement that pain patients try opioid-based treatments first before receiving a medical cannabis recommendation for their condition.
It also includes provisions to clarify that the state’s hemp law is not intended to authorize the sale of hemp-derived intoxicating products, such as delta-8 THC.
Last month, the House separately defeated a different marijuana legalization amendment that was being proposed as part of a Medicaid expansion bill.
Also, the Senate moved to table another piece of legislation last month 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.