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New Hampshire Committee Sends Amended Marijuana Legalization Bill To House Floor For Final Vote Before Senate Consideration

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Source: Marijuana Moment

A New Hampshire House panel has approved an amended version of a marijuana legalization bill, sending the measure next to a final floor vote before it heads to the opposite chamber. But some in the Senate, however, have warned that the proposal in its current form will be dead on arrival there.

On Tuesday the House Finance Committee voted 19–6 in favor of the bill, HB 1633, from sponsor Rep. Erica Layon (R). If enacted, it would allow 15 adult-use cannabis retailers to open statewide—one of a number of requirements that Gov. Chris Sununu (R) laid out last year—and strictly limit advertising and marketing. Products would be subject to a 10 percent state charge, though registered medical marijuana products would be exempt.

While some in the Senate, as well as Sununu, favor a state-controlled franchise model for the legal industry, Layon’s bill would establish stores through a so-called agency store model, which she’s described as a system “where the state requires agreement and compliance from private businesses granted limited licenses by the Liquor Commission beyond the traditional health and safety regulatory role of government.”

At Tuesday’s House Finance hearing, Rep. Peter Leishman (D), who chairs a subcommittee that voted to advance the bill the day before, explained that the current version of the measure adheres to that approach.”We pretty much stuck with the version that came out of the Commerce Committee,” he said, referring to another panel that had crafted the legislation earlier in the session.

“I know you all were aware of a lot of back and forth and suggestions that we accept some language that was suggested to us by members of the Senate,” he told the panel, “but we did stick with the House version.”

Before voting on the underlying bill, members of the panel voted 19–6 to adopt a handful of changes from both Layon and Leishman, which were approved in a finance subcommittee earlier this week.

As Leishman explained to colleagues, the changes give lawmakers oversight of any financial transfers over $75,000 instead of giving the state Liquor Commission full control over such transfers. Liquor Commission funds would also be used to establish the program rather than general state money, and all revenue received by the commission from the legal cannabis industry would go to the state’s general fund.

“We don’t anticipate any funds from the passage of this bill for at least two years,” Leishman noted.

Following the committee’s approval of the bill, the panel’s chair, Rep. Kenneth Weyler (R), said that he would be writing the minority report on behalf of those on the committee who oppose the reform.

Other recently approved amendments include the addition of a severability clause between what Layon has called broad “operational” control over agency stores from what she calls more limited “regulatory” control. Her amendment divides those two roles—regulation and broader operational control—and says that they’re severable.

That means that if the federal government decides to go after the state for its day-to-day oversight of the industry, as Layon and others have warned could happen, the state could still preserve its regulatory authority over cannabis businesses. The change would also allow lawmakers in future years to shift away from the agency store model toward a more traditional private marketplace.

“At least if we have these clear lines between the operational control and the regulatory control, there’s an opportunity for the state to pivot if we’ve adopted the wrong model,” she explained of the change last week.

Another change reduced the proposed penalty for public consumption of marijuana. Initially a second or subsequent offense could be charged as an undefined misdemeanor, meaning prosecutors could charge the case as a Class A misdemeanor and seek jail time for a defendant. The bill’s adjusted language specifies that repeat offenses would be charged instead as Class B misdemeanors, which carries up to a $1,200 fine but no possibility of jail time.

The measure now goes to the House floor for final approval by the chamber ahead of an April 11 crossover deadline.

Following the full Finance Committee vote on Tuesday, Layon, the bill’s sponsor, said she’s optimistic about the bill’s next steps.

“I’m looking forward to passing good compromise legislation from the House that addresses the harms already facing existing cannabis users without the state promoting the use of cannabis and trying to increase sales,” she told Marijuana Moment.

“I expect this bill to have fair treatment in the Senate,” she added, “and I look forward to that process.”

Some senators, most notably Sen. Daryl Abbas (R)—who chaired a state commission on legalization late last year that failed to approve recommended legislation—have warned that the legalization bill in its current form would be dead on arrival in their chamber, because it departs from a state-run franchise model that has the support of Sununu. But at last week’s hearing, members of the House subcommittee rejected a sweeping amendment that would have replaced Layon’s plan with a franchise model.

“If the Senate has problems with passing a bill, I don’t see why we have to do their hard work here for them,” Rep. Chuck Grassie (D) said at the time. “I think they need to debate this. They need to make up their mind on a bill, and they need to send something back to us if we want to see cannabis legalization in the state of New Hampshire.”

Grassie applauded Layon for what what he called “a Herculean effort…to get the governor and the Senate on board.”

Layon told Marijuana Moment after Monday’s subcommittee vote that she’s continued to work to move her bill closer to what Sununu has said he wants any policy change to include.

“I initially intended that this bill sort of be a counterpoint to what the special committee was going to deliver and what Sen. Abbas was going to introduce,” she said. “The fact that he didn’t introduce it and this is the only shot at legalization this year, I just really wanted to work hard in a good faith effort to get to something that I was comfortable with and that match the requirements of the governor as best I understood them.”

While in past months Layon has said she’s been unable to secure a meeting with Sununu’s representatives to discuss the plan, she said that on Monday she spoke briefly with one of his policy staff and looks forward to hearing his feedback.

“If there’s any last efforts needed to close that gap—that are something that are acceptable to me to move forward in the House—that’s something where I would look into doing a floor amendment in order to close those gaps and get it to something the governor can sign,” Layon said.

Meanwhile at an event last week, Sununu said he thinks legalization is “inevitable” in New Hampshire, adding that policymakers have “seen the mistakes other states have made so as not to walk down that path.”

“People just want the accessibility for adults, keeping it away from kids,” the governor said, according to to the Concord Monitor. “If they can meet those rough stipulations, I would sign it, because I think that’s one of the safest systems you’re going to get.”

He added that as a legalization skeptic, he’s better positioned to consider a thoughtful bill.

“There’s no better person to help design a system that could be fraught with problems and risk specifically to kids than the guy that’s most scared of it,” he said.

Last year Sununu said he supported a system of state-run retail stores, but lawmakers on a state study commission last year instead pivoted to the idea of a franchise system, which Sununu has said he’s willing to entertain. Officials at the Liquor Commission have said it would be far less costly for private franchisees to build out a system of retail stores than to ask the Liquor Commission to take on that task itself.

Lawmakers worked extensively on marijuana reform issues last session and attempted to reach a compromise 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. The legislature ultimately hit an impasse on the complex legislation.

Bicameral lawmakers also convened the state commission tasked with studying legalization and proposing a path forward last year, though the group ultimately failed to arrive at a consensus or propose final legislation.

The Senate defeated a more conventional House-passed legalization bill last year, HB 639, despite its bipartisan support.

Last May, the House separately defeated a different marijuana legalization amendment that was being proposed as part of a Medicaid expansion bill. The Senate also 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 the 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.

Three In Five Americans Say Adults Should Have A Right To Grow Their Own Marijuana Plants, Poll Finds

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