(The Cannabist)

New Hampshire Senate joins House (and New England) in deciding weed should be decriminalized

CONCORD, N.H. — Senators voted Thursday to remove criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of pot, putting New Hampshire on a path to finally join the rest of New England in decriminalizing marijuana.

The bill would change possessing up to three-quarters of an ounce of marijuana from a potential misdemeanor to a violation-level offense. Supporters argued the change will ensure young people’s lives aren’t ruined by getting caught with weed.

“Kids are what we used to be when we were kids. They try things,” Republican Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley said. “I don’t want my kids facing one strike and you’re out, because I’ve been there.”

The Senate’s 16-7 vote marks a major victory for decriminalization advocates, who have historically seen the upper chamber defeat such bills. The House passed a bill decriminalizing up to 1 ounce earlier this year, and must take a final vote on the Senate’s version. Prime sponsor Rep. Renny Cushing says the bill will pass the House. Republican Gov. Chris Sununu plans to sign it.

Still, opponents argue decriminalizing marijuana sends the wrong message as New Hampshire battles a drug crisis and could lead to more young people becoming addicted to illicit substances.

“This is obviously the wrong message to be sending to my children, the children of New Hampshire, and the governor’s children,” Republican Sen. Bill Gannon said. “The federal government has been very clear: Marijuana is illegal and for good reason.”

The Senate’s action Thursday comes a day after Vermont’s Legislature became the first in the nation to vote in favor of legalizing marijuana. Maine and Massachusetts’ voters approved legalization in ballot measures last year.

In New Hampshire, finding a decriminalization bill that could pass the Senate took significant work, with Bradley working alongside pro-marijuana advocates and the police to find a workable bill.

The legislation makes possessing three-quarters of marijuana or five grams of hashish or less a violation-level offense with a fine of up to $300 for adults. Minors caught with either would be subject to a delinquency petition. Someone can be charged with a misdemeanor if they are found with marijuana for a fourth time within three years.

It specifically says police cannot arrest someone for a marijuana violation. Any money collected from fines under the law will go into a fund aimed at alcohol and drug abuse prevention and treatment.