A New Hampshire commission charged with drafting a bill to legalize marijuana sales through a system of state-run stores by the end of this month met again on Friday, making slow progress through a line-by-line review of sample legislation that the panel is using as a reference point.
The committee made it through about a page and a half of the 37-page document during Friday’s meeting, flagging a number of items as “homework assignments” for individual members of the panel to research and return to at another meeting. Among those issues were personal possession limits, penalties for smoking or vaping marijuana in public, whether adults could gift cannabis to one another and whether unhoused people should count as “residents” under the bill’s definitions section.
All told, since taking up the reference bill at their last meeting, members have reviewed little more than six pages of the document, which was distributed by commission’s chair, Sen. Daryl Abbas (R). Staff for Abbas told Marijuana Moment last month that the draft measure is “extremely fluid and nothing is official by any means.”
Much like last time the panel convened, members made very few formal changes to Abbas’s draft legislation during the meeting itself. Instead, when discussion became contentious or the panel was unsure of a provision’s meaning, individual members were tasked with incorporating feedback into updated provisions by the body’s next meeting, set for Thursday.
One matter that divided the commission at Friday’s meeting was how to punish people who smoke or vape marijuana in public places. The working draft says the offense would carry a $250 civil fine, which is higher than the state’s existing $100 penalty for consuming alcohol in public. Some members wanted to reduce the fine to match the penalty for alcohol, while others—including Abbas—pushed to increase the penalty to a misdemeanor crime.
Abbas, a lawyer, said he works in Salem, Massachusetts, where marijuana is already legal, and often smells cannabis in a parking garage there. “I don’t think whatever deterrent system they have going on there is working,” he said.
Another member of the commission, Sen. Rebecca Whitley (D), reminded Abbas that public policy shouldn’t be made based on individual anecdotes. “You want to make public policy based on evidence,” she said. “If the real purpose is deterrence, we need to have the data to prove that it’s an effective deterrent to criminalize the behavior.”
For her part, Whitley said, “there’s absolutely no way that I would support any sort of bill that had a misdemeanor built into it.”
Some members suggested a system of graduated punishments that would become more severe with subsequent violations. Ultimately, however, the panel didn’t agree on how to proceed and pushed the matter to the next meeting.
Another controversial issue was whether adults should be able to legally gift marijuana to one another. It’s allowed under the draft bill circulated by Abbas, but some members said Friday that they opposed it.
“I would be opposed to Section B as it stands simply because it enables gifting,” John Bryfonski, the chief of police in Bedford, said at one point during the debate.
Panelists agreed to return to the issue later.
In addition to the line-by-line review of Abbas’s draft legislation, commission members on Friday also heard testimony from two representative of a testing lab, who discussed how and why marijuana products should be screened for pesticides and heavy metals, and a California pediatrician from the group Getting It Right From the Start who opposes legalization.
Most commission members appeared supportive of the plan to test cannabis products, but they asked about cost and procedural comparisons between having the state handle testing as opposed to using third-party labs. They also seemed to welcome a list of adulterants that testing labs in Canada screen for.
Notably, the state’s medical marijuana regulators don’t currently make public the list of contaminants that New Hampshire testing labs can screen for, which an official said was because publishing labs’ capabilities could lead businesses to use other products that can’t be detected. Members of the panel nevertheless requested the list of contaminants and corresponding action levels to take into consideration.
The Getting It Right From the Start speaker, Lynn Silver, was invited to visit from California by the office of Gov. Chris Sununu (R). She told the panel that while she once supported legalization, she’s since come to oppose it as the result of what she’s seen in California and other states.
Among Silver’s arguments were that cannabis is far more potent than it was generations ago, which she said can increase the likelihood of detrimental health effects. She said use of the drug has also been associated with car crashes and poisonings of youth, among other concerns.
“We know now that cannabis use is also associated with increases in suicidality, mood disorders, car accidents and probably heart attacks,” she said, “even though many consumers use it believing misleading industry messages that it is a safe stress reliever.”
Among the recommendations Silver made were that the state limit cannabis potency, consider prohibiting concentrated cannabis products and avoid tempting children through marijuana advertisements or product packaging. She also advised high taxes—along the lines of Washington State’s 37 percent cannabis tax—and a limit on the number of retail outlets.
“My general point is, don’t get starry-eyed with revenue projections from private operators,” she warned. “If you do this wrong and create an industry that drives up consumption and more serious adverse events, you’ll essentially be robbing Peter to pay Paul. For every dollar in taxes, you’ll spend one or two on psychiatric beds or rehab units.”
Silver also praised the idea of state-run storefronts—an idea supported by Sununu and the approach that the commission was initially created to study. She said that Ontario, Canada, which sells marijuana product through government-run stores, has had better health outcomes and greater economic benefits than other provinces that allow private retailers.
Silver argued that it would be preferable for New Hampshire simply to decriminalize marijuana—which it has already done for small amounts—rather than allow for commercial sales, but she said steps such as requiring plain product packaging and prevalent, graphic warning labels would help limit the dangers of legalization.
About a third of the commission is generally opposed to legalizing marijuana, and those members said they were grateful for Silver’s comments.
“Your testimony is one of the most powerful arguments against legalization that I have ever heard,” said Debra Naro, executive director of the group Communities for Alcohol- and Drug-Free Youth.
Joseph Mollica, chair of the New Hampshire Liquor Commission, told Silver that “a lot of what you brought before us goes along with what we as the state want to do, and it’s great to hear that those are the things that we should be doing.”
The commission indicated that at a forthcoming meeting, members would like to hear from someone from Ontario, Canada who can speak to that jurisdiction’s approach to state-run stores.
The study group, formally called the Commission to Study With the Purpose of Proposing Legislation, State-Controlled Sales of Cannabis and Cannabis Products, is tasked with generally studying the feasibility of a state-run cannabis model and specifically 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
In an earlier meeting, in September, the commission signaled it was moving away from the state-run sales model. Members are instead pursuing an alternative, franchise-style system. Officials have likened the model to McDonalds and Dunkin’ Donuts. Adult-use shops would be privately owned, for-profit businesses, but they would be overseen by the state government.
Regardless of what’s in the bill the commission ultimately recommends, lawmakers during next year’s legislative session could amend various provisions or overhaul the proposal altogether.
House Commerce and Consumer Affairs Committee Chairman John Hunt (R), a member of the commission, worked extensively on marijuana reform issues this year and attempted 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 House panel, however, reached an impasse on the complex legislation, which was being considered following Sununu’s surprise announcement that he backed state-run legalization. Meanwhile the Senate defeated the a conventional legalization bill, HB 639, despite its bipartisan support.
The underlying commission legislation that the governor signed into law with the legalization study 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.
Here’s the full draft legislation that was discussed at Friday’s meeting:
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