(RobinOlimb/Getty Images Royalty Free)
BOSTON (WBZ NewsRadio) — On Wednesday of this week, the New Hampshire State House approved a bill that would legalize recreational cannabis in the Granite State. So how close does that bring its residents to switching out their street dealer for a state licensed and taxed cannabis store? The finish line may be in sight, but this is no sprint. Prepare to jump some hurdles, and then hurry up and wait.
First; the details of the bill. HB 481 was introduced in mid-January 2019 by State Rep. Robert ‘Renny’ Cushing (D) of Rockingham’s 21st District. It barely scraped through the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee 10-9 last week, and it passed through the state’s House exactly six weeks later with a vote of 209 in favor, 147 against.
Next, the bill will head to the House Ways and Means Committee to see if it financially flies. They’ll give it another vote and, provided no changes need to be made, the bill will make its way to the New Hampshire Senate.
Enter Hurdle Number One. The Senate is where a similar bill failed in 2014. Five years ago, the Live Free or Die State was actually the first in the U.S. to introduce legislation that would have legalized cannabis recreationally. It made it just as far as this bill has—but state Senators quickly killed it off. However, in case of a potential repeat of that hurdle, there is a springboard this time: Both of New Hampshire’s Houses of Congress this year are controlled by Democrats, most of whom are strongly in support of a bill to legalize rec.
So, let’s say it passes the House Ways and Means Committee without any problems, and New Hampshire’s mostly-Democratic State Senators also give the bill a thumbs up. Now what? HB 481 would then make its way to Republican Governor Chris Sununu for a final signature into law.
Cue Hurdle Number Two. Governor Sununu has just recommitted to his pledge of vetoing the bill if it ever gets to his desk, because he thinks there are too many safety issues surrounding recreational legalization. But don’t lose hope—House Speaker Steve Shurtleff says he thinks even if the Governor vetoes the bill, there is enough support in the House to override that veto—and he believes the Senate may have the same strength in numbers.
If we can dream for a moment and imagine this bill passes the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate, survives a Gubernatorial veto, and rallies to become actual law—what would this new law allow for the good people of New Hampshire?
First up, anyone age 21 and above would be allowed to possess up to an ounce of cannabis flower. They could gift it, consume it, cultivate up to six plants per adult, and when stores open, purchase it from a licensed seller. Secondly, the law would necessitate the creation of a Cannabis Commission, much like Massachusetts’ CCC, to write the actual specifics of the policy and OK licenses to cannabis business hopefuls. The panel would review all applications and vote to issue licenses for growers, product manufacturers, testing labs, and pot retailers.
Separately, another eleven-member panel would be selected to form a Cannabis Advisory panel for the commission to turn to while writing the specifics of the law. It would likely consist of public voices for social equity, and experts in medicine, public health, and law. And much like other states with legal rec, the Commissions would be appointed by the Governor. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly to many, it would expunge the records of those with past low-level cannabis related convictions. Clearing records can have a widespread impact on the quality of people's lives, allowing thousands to fully re-enter the workforce with far fewer barriers.
If you think it sounds like a lot of work to get the legislation passed, to set up commissions to get advice and write it all out, to get applicants and license and inspect retailers ... you’re be right. Just look at Massachusetts. Doing things that slowly here meant it took nearly two years between the initial public vote to legalize and the awarding of final licenses to the first cannabis businesses. And it took another month or so until a lab was licensed to test product, and anyone had shelves stocked and doors open to sell.
If the Rec bill in New Hampshire passes, it would take 60 days from the Governor’s signature for all these new policies to become law. Growing, gifting, and consuming on your own property would all be good to go two months after Sununu signs it. But seeing actual sales, well, that’s a lot further off. At the moment, it looks like the first preliminary licenses for stores could be issued by a potential New Hampshire Cannabis Commission on or before November 30, 2020. Then, there would be final inspections and final licenses, and provided at least one testing lab is approved, then and only then would you be allowed to pay over the counter for legal, tested, and taxed weed. Probably circa early 2021.
The problem here is obvious—that’s 2 years away, and the demand for recreational pot is not going anywhere. If lawmakers sign a bill allowing for possession, home cultivation, and gifting, but it takes a slow and steady approach to opening shops, you’ve got a proverbial petri dish on your hands ripe for a developing black market.
New Hampshirites are also just a short drive away from the three states bordering them, all of which have legal recreational shops; Massachusetts, Maine, and Vermont. New York and New Jersey are also strongly considering recreational legalization this year. So if it doesn’t pick up the pace, the Granite State could lose out on the potential for a lot of taxable sales—$33 million predicted in the first year alone, in fact.
Although it’s illegal to cross over state lines in possession of cannabis, in New Hampshire, possessing certain amounts of weed is already decriminalized. And as soon as this potential bill becomes New Hampshire law, the crossing of the border would be the only illegal part of driving over to Salem, Massachusetts, buying bud, locking it in your trunk, and driving home. Since law enforcement doesn’t need to divert attention to low level cannabis possession cases, I’d bet New Hampshire will see a lot of potential pot customers just take a drive to their nearest shop—no matter which state its in.
As far as the path to legal recreational cannabis in New Hampshire is concerned, this week step one of approximately six has been taken. There’s a good chance the next four or so steps will be taken in quick succession, all leaning towards allowing for the new rec law. But don’t expect that final step of licensing and opening stores to happen at the same pace. My advice; start researching how to grow your own now.