A New Hampshire commission tasked with preparing legislation to legalize marijuana sales through a system of state-run stores held its first meeting on Friday, with members electing leaders of the panel and offering a sense of the specific policy issues they will be exploring.
The governor signed a bill to create the commission earlier last month after bipartisan and bicameral lawmakers reached an agreement to enact the incremental reform in a conference committee.
Seventeen members were selected to form the “Commission to Study with the Purpose of Proposing Legislation, State-Controlled Sale of Cannabis and Cannabis Products,” and they hold mixed records on cannabis policy. The body includes five lawmakers from the House, five members from the Senate, a governor’s designee and professionals representing banking, health, law enforcement and civil rights interests.
Sen. Daryl Abbas (R), who has sponsored state-run legalization legislation in the past, was named chairman of the commission on Friday, and pro-legalization Sen. Becky Whitley (D) was appointed as the clerk.
At the meeting, members seemed to fall into one of three “camps,” Matt Simon, an attendee who serves as director of public and government relations at Prime Alternative Treatment Centers of New Hampshire, told Marijuana Moment.
There are those who support more conventional legalization and want to study what others states have done; there are others like Abbas who back the state-control model at the center of the commission’s work; and there are those such as Bedford Police Chief John Bryfonski, representing the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police (NHACOP), who oppose the reform altogether.
New commission to craft state-run sale of recreational marijuana meets. Chairman/Sen. Daryl Abbas, R-Salem, on individual disagreements with the policy. “I think it is important we work together to come up with legislation but it doesn’t mean that we support it.” #nhpolitics pic.twitter.com/1BUN5eBEDc
— Kevin Landrigan (@KlandriganUL) September 8, 2023
Topics that members raised as examples of what they would like to discuss moving forward include public health, youth prevention, per se THC limits for impaired driving and annulments of prior cannabis records, which was recommended by Frank Knaack, policy director of the ACLU of New Hampshire.
Members also received a side-by-side paper that compared provisions of two state-run legalization bills that have moved through the legislature, which could theoretically be used as legislative models to build on as the commission carries out its work.
The next meeting is set for September 18, and that will involve a presentation on the issue from the New Hampshire Liquor Commission, which has two members on the commission: chairman Joseph Mollica and policy director James Vara.
“We look forward to participating in the process and trying to come up with reasonable policy that makes sense for New Hampshire,” Simon said.
(Disclosure: Simon supports Marijuana Moment’s work through a monthly pledge on Patreon.)
Members will need move quickly to study and draft novel legalization legislation for lawmakers to consider in the second half of the two-year legislative session that begins in January. The commission’s work will be due December 1.
In addition to generally studying the feasibility of a state-run cannabis model, the group is specifically tasked with looking at the possibility of drafting legislation that:
Allows the state to control distribution and access
Keeps marijuana away from kids and out of schools
Controls the marketing and messaging of the sale of marijuana
Prohibits “marijuana miles” or the over-saturation of marijuana retail establishments
Empowers municipalities to choose to limit or prohibit marijuana retail establishments
Reduces instances of multi-drug use
Does not impose an additional tax so as to remain competitive
Other members of the body include representatives of the New Hampshire Bankers Association and Communities for Alcohol- and Drug-free Youth (CADY).
A large part of why the commission will be focusing on creating a state-run cannabis market is because Gov. Chris Sununu (R) surprisingly came out in favor of the reform model in May after reaching the conclusion that legalization is “inevitable” despite his overall concerns with the policy. A state-run system, he said, is the best way to make sure his ongoing health and safety concerns can be addressed.
The legislation forming the commission that was approved by the conference committee in June initially only required members to study the state stores idea for cannabis. But it was amended prior to final passage to include a mandate for the body to take its findings and draft an actual state-run legalization measure that legislators can consider when they reconvene.
House Commerce and Consumer Affairs Committee Chairman John Hunt (R), who served as a conferee and is now on the commission, has worked extensively on marijuana reform issues this year—including recent efforts to reach a compromise on legislation to enact legalization this year 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.
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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.
Meanwhile, the underlying legislation that the governor signed into law with the legalization study commission provisions would also 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.
In May, 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 that 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.
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.