March 17, 2017REGION — New Hampshire House of Representatives passed a slew of marijuana-related bills last week and we reached out for comment from the 14 members that represent Carroll County. Each of the bills now move to a vote by N.H. Senate.
Last week the NH House voted 318 to 36 to bring HB 640 one step closer to becoming the law that will reduce the penalty for possessing up to one ounce of marijuana. Currently, marijuana possession is a misdemeanor and carries a possible penalty of up to a year in prison and $2,000 fine. If HB 640 passes the NH Senate, it then goes to Governor Chris Sununu who has told other media outlets that he is in favor of decriminalization. Marijuana possession for people over age 21 would become a violation with a $100 fine. This is the first New Hampshire governor supportive of decriminalization and the state is the only one in New England that still criminalizes people for marijuana possession.
According to state data, in the Third Circuit Court in Ossipee alone, in 2016 there were 260 marijuana possession-related charges disposed. Of those charges, 186 were brought against New Hampshire residents with an average age of 31. N.H. State Police brought 166 of the 260 complaints to court followed by Moultonborough Police (27), Wolfeboro (25), Wakefield (20), Carroll County Sheriff's Department (12), Tamworth (3), NH Fish and Game (2), Sandwich (2), Tuftonboro (2), and Ossipee (1).
The fine for a first offense marijuana possession in a small quantity is $350 plus a 24-percent penalty assessment totaling $434. The fine portion is deposited into the State's general revenue fund. The penalty assessment portion is divvied up three ways – 16.67 percent to the Judicial Branch Information Technology Fund; 16.67 percent to the Department of Justice Victims Assistance Fund; and 66.66 percent to the State's general revenue fund. Information about the fiscal impact collecting much less in fines and penalties will have on the state's revenue if decriminalization passes was not available for this report.
Among Carroll County representatives, 10 voted in favor of decriminalization and three opposed – Reps. Glenn Cordelli (R-Tuftonboro), Karel Crawford (R-Moultonborough), and Frank McCarthy (R-Conway). Rep. Bill Nelson (R-Brookfield) was absent from the vote.
McCarthy, who voted against HB 640, said in an email statement, "We are in the throes of a horrific opioid crises such as we have never experienced before. Close to 480 of our citizens will have died in 2016 from opioid use. Many of those started out on that path to death by smoking a casual joint. It is, in my opinion, total hypocrisy to spend hundreds of millions of dollars fighting the unlawful use of one drug and at the same time, turn around and tell our citizens marijuana is just fine. I am proud of each of my votes."
Rep. Jerry Knirk (D-Freedom) voted in favor and said, "It is about time to stop wasting resources prosecuting and incarcerating people for possession of marijuana, a drug which is less harmful than alcohol. I favor legalization and taxation, but this is a good first step."
Rep. Ed Comeau (R-Brookfield) voted in favor and said decriminalization is a "first step in the right direction." Comeau heard hours of testimony over the past two years and said the legislature was "experiencing a learning curve." "Cannabis is still suffering from the federal propaganda wars of the 1940s and during the hearings those incorrect points were still heard from opponents. This issue has more to do with choice and if we should allow the Legislature to make lists of things that are prohibited. Some of the opponents of this bill and Legislators, gleefully stroll over to the bar across the street of the State House and drink alcohol, do they forget what occurred during alcohol prohibition? We are all sovereign human beings that have right to choose and make decisions about what we consume and use as medicine," said Comeau.
Chronic Pain and PTSD
Legislators were also asked to add chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to the list of qualifying medical conditions under therapeutic use of cannabis (medical marijuana). The list already contains 19 medical conditions including cancer, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, Parkinson's, multiple sclerosis, and others.
The chronic pain bill, N.H. House Bill 157, passed 301-47 with Reps. Cordelli and McCarthy voting against it as well as Reps. Gene Chandler (R-Bartlett), William Marsh (R-Wolfeboro), Mark McConkey (R-Freedom) and Stephen Schmidt (R-Wolfeboro).
The PTSD bill, NH House Bill 160, passed 302-46 with Reps. Chandler, Cordelli, Marsh, McCarthy, and Schmidt all opposed.
When asked about his vote on these two bills, Comeau reiterated his point that people should be able to choose what they consume and what they use as medicine. He went on to say, "I personally know veterans that struggled with the ineffectual use of pharmaceutical drugs that were prescribed to them. All of them found that cannabis calmed their minds. It was described to me this way: The PTSD symptom was described as a constant very loud uninvited guest banging at their front door of their home. A flood of fear that overtakes their senses. After the use of cannabis, it was described that 'it calms their minds, somehow blocked or limited this overstimulation. They told me it allowed them to move away from this effect and heal."
While Marsh spoke against both of these bills on the House floor, Knirk – who also sits on the House Health & Human Services committee – spoke in favor. He pointed to a recent National Academy of Sciences Review study that showed cannabis can actually be more effective in treatment of chronic pain than prescription opioids. "The addition of cannabis in the treatment of a person with chronic pain can allow a smaller dose of opioid or may completely replace the use of opioids in a patient with chronic pain," Knirk said in a statement and added, "Given the substantial risks of chronic opioid therapy, decreasing the use of opioids will be beneficial." Knirk also pointed to promising signs that cannabis can be effective in the treatment of PTSD, especially for veterans who "have served us so unselfishly."
Grow your own
The House committee voted to squash a bill to allow registered medical marijuana patients or their caregivers to grow a small amount of marijuana. When HB 472 got to the N.H. House floor last week, however, the legislature disagreed in a 233-118 vote not to accept the committee's recommendation. Knirk said, "Some qualified patients live a long way from an Alternative Treatment Center [dispensary] and the cannabis in the ATCs is expensive. Home cultivation allows qualified patients to avoid the long drive and the cost. They would need to work to find the correct strain of cannabis to help them with their problem – a service that the ATC provides when it is dispensing." Currently there are only four dispensaries in the state – Plymouth, Merrimack, Dover, and Lebanon. Eight of the Carroll County representatives voted to kill the bill – Cordelli, Crawford, Chandler, Marsh, McCarthy, McConkey, Schmidt and Karen Umberger (R-Conway).
Umberger said the cultivation bill gave her pause. "There is no way to enforce the number of plants a person grows. My concern is not for the person who grows the plants, but rather what he or she does with the excess. Will it be given to family members, friends or for that matter sold on the street?" she asked.
Comeau said, "The act of cultivating a plant is very therapeutic. In addition, the act of cultivating a plant, giving it water, sunlight and using it as your medication is priceless to anyone suffering from debilitating illness. The caregiver becomes a teacher and offers patients a life sustaining, quality of life, affirmation. The legislature cannot have the authority to deny this."
Senator Jeb Bradley (R-Wolfeboro) represents all of Carroll County as well as Middleton, Milton, and Waterville Valley. He can be reached at 603-271-2609 or by email at Jeb.Bradley@leg.state.nh.us