Should New Hampshire decriminalize or legalize marijuana?
By: LFDA Editor
In a Nutshell:
- Marijuana decriminalization would reduce possession of small amounts of the drug from a Class A misdemeanor to a civil offense or violation, much like a traffic ticket.
- Instead of potential jail time, offenders would be subject to small fines, and the offense would not appear on their criminal records.
- Proponents of decriminalization argue that it would allow the state to devote law enforcement resources to more serious crimes.
- Opponents argue that marijuana is a dangerous drug that should remain strictly prohibited, or see decriminalization as an ineffective ‘half-step’ that should be bypassed in favor of full legalization.
What is decriminalization?
Decriminalization of marijuana is often confused with legalization – but decriminalizing cannabis is not the same thing as making it legal to smoke or consume marijuana for recreational purposes. Instead, marijuana decriminalization reduces the potential consequences of being caught in possession of small quantities of the drug.
Existing NH marijuana laws
Currently, getting caught with of any amount of marijuana in NH is a serious crime.
- Possession of any quantity of cannabis is considered a Class A Misdemeanor, punishable by up to 1 year in jail or a $2,000 fine.
- Selling marijuana, or possession with the intent to sell, is a felony offense, entailing up to 20 years of jail time or a $300,000 fine.
- Punishments vary based on the quantity an offender possesses: the more marijuana you have, the greater potential fine or prison sentence you could be subjected to.
- Sentences and fines for marijuana offenses double if the drug was sold or possessed with intent to sell within 1,000 feet of a school zone.
- Growing marijuana is treated as another form of possession, with the same potential consequences.
What decriminalization would mean in NH
Decriminalization would significantly lower the punishment for being caught with a small amount of marijuana. Proposed quantity thresholds vary from 0.5oz up to 3.5oz.
- Instead of a misdemeanor, possession of small amounts of cannabis would be reduced to a civil offense or violation—much like a traffic ticket.
- The offense would no longer be punishable by jail time, and would not become part of an offender’s criminal record.
- However, it’s important to note that possession of larger quantities of marijuana, selling, or possession with the intent to sell would still be considered criminal offenses.
- An April 2014 WMUR-Granite State poll found 61% of NH adults support marijuana decriminalization, with 24% opposed and 3% neutral. An LFDA informal public survey (“Citizens weigh in on marijuana decriminalization – 1822 responses) found even greater support, with 88% of respondents expressing favor for decriminalization.
How is this different from medicinal marijuana?
NH’s medicinal marijuana law, which was passed in 2013, legalizes the use of cannabis for certain prescribed medical purposes.
- Those using marijuana for legal medicinal purposes must have a qualifying condition, such as cancer, glaucoma, or HIV.
- Medicinal marijuana users must apply for a DHHS-issued ID card and can only acquire the drug from a licensed dispensary.
For more information, see Medicinal Marijuana.
Arguments for decriminalization
Proponents of decriminalization argue that marijuana is a relatively benign drug, and that lowering the nature of the offense for possession would save the state money, reducing incarceration rates and freeing up resources for law enforcement to focus on more serious crimes.
- In 2012, there were 2,934 arrests for marijuana possession in NH.
- In 2010, NH spent roughly $6.5 million enforcing marijuana laws – $3 million in policing, $2.4 million in judicial and legal costs, and $1.2 million on corrections.
- In 2013, NH’s incarceration rate rose faster than that of any other state in the nation, by 8.2% for a total of roughly 3,000 inmates. However, in 2013 NH’s incarceration rate was still 56% lower than the US average.
Arguments against decriminalization
Opposition to decriminalization falls into two camps.
- First, there are those who argue marijuana possession should remain a criminal offense because cannabis is a dangerous substance with negative effects on users, including vulnerable youth populations.
- Others oppose decriminalization as an ineffective “half step” toward full marijuana legalization, which they believe would more effectively address more serious problems posed by marijuana, such as the role is plays in funding gangs and criminal networks, and the danger of contaminated or adulterated cannabis.
Decriminalization in US and around the world
- 19 states have decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana.
- NH is the only state in New England that has not decriminalized marijuana.
- Many nations have also decriminalized possession or cultivation of specific quantities marijuana for personal use, such as Argentina, Czech Republic, Netherlands, and Portugal.
- The majority of countries and US states continue to enforce a full prohibition of marijuana use.
Federal marijuana law
The US federal government considers cannabis a Schedule 1 Controlled Substance, a classification which states that there is “no currently accepted medical use” for the drug. There have been extensive legal challenges to this classification, but thus far, none have been successful.
- So far as the federal government is concerned, possession and distribution of marijuana are prohibited under the Controlled Substances Act.
- Federal law trumps state law in cases where the two conflict.
- In 2014, Congress passed a measure that prohibits the Drug Enforcement Administration from using federal funds to impede state medical marijuana laws. However, this provision does not apply to decriminalization statutes.
- This means people possessing marijuana have no strict guarantee of immunity from federal prosecution regardless of state laws.
Rep. Larry Phillips (D-Keene) is the primary sponsor of HB 150, a 2015 bill that establishes a committee to study the legalization of marijuana. That bill passed the House and now heads to the Senate.
Rep. Wayne Moynihan is the primary sponsor of HB 421, a 2015 bill that authorizes the university of New Hampshire to grow industrial hemp for research purposes. That bill passed the House and now heads to the Senate.
Rep. Elizabeth Edwards is the primary sponsor of HB 494, a 2015 bill that prohibits the designation of industrial hemp as a controlled substance. That bill passed the House and now heads to the Senate.
Rep. Adam Schroadter is the primary sponsor of HB 618, a 2015 bill that reduces the penalty for possession of one half ounce or less of marijuana to a violation. The House passed the bill and it now heads to the Senate.
Sen. Molly Kelly is the primary sponsor of SB 106, a 2015 bill that prohibits the sale, use, or possession of synthetic drugs, such as "spice." An amended version of the bill passed the Senate (23-0) on February 12, 2015.
Rep. Adam Schroadter (R-Newmarket) was the primary sponsor of HB 1625, a bill to decriminalize possession of one ounce or less of marijuana. Anyone convicted would be subject to a $100 fine. This bill passed the House but was rejected by the Senate.
Rep. Kris Robertson (D-Keene) sponsored HB 1446, a bill to ban synthetic marijuana. The bill was referred for Interim Study by the House.
HB 1611, sponsored by Rep. Susan Emerson (R-Rindge) would also ban synthetic marijuana. The bill was killed in the House.
Three bills related to marijuana legalization and decriminalization were proposed in the 2013 legislative session:HB 621
- a bill that categorized possession of less than a quarter-ounce of marijuana as a 'violation' and punishable by a fine of up to $200 - came the closest to passage. It passed the House (214-115), but was killed in the Senate (voice vote). Sen. Donna Soucy (D - District 18) told the Concord Monitor
the bill failed to address repeat offenders and the state lacked a drug awareness program for under-18 offenders. HB 492
legalized the personal use of up to one ounce of marijuana by persons 21 years of age or older; authorized the licensing of marijuana wholesale, retail, cultivation, and testing facilities; and imposed a tax on the sale of marijuana. The House killed that bill March 26, 2014. HB 337
- a bill that removed the criminal penalties for possession or use of marijuana - was killed in the House.
 Link to citizen voice.
 http://time.com/3404887/new-hampshire-prison-population-increase/ - reports