Pubdate: Sun, 31 Jan 2010
Source: Eagle-Tribune, The (MA)
Copyright: 2010 The Eagle-Tribune
Author: Terry Date


More than a year after Massachusetts decriminalized marijuana 
possession, New Hampshire lawmakers are thinking about doing the same 
- -- or even taxing and regulating cannabis.

The ailing economy and budgetary crisis are prompting legislators to 
take a second or, at least, a longer look at House Bill 1652.

This proposal would allow adults to possess 1 ounce or less, provide 
for state regulation, and tax marijuana's wholesale and retail sale.

Prime sponsor Rep. Calvin Pratt, R-Goffstown, said he doesn't expect 
it to become law this year, but if tough economic challenges linger, 
the bill may be approved in years to come.

For the time being, Pratt said he thinks the decriminalization bill, 
HB1653, which would allow possession of one-quarter ounce or less, 
stands a better chance than HB 1652 of gaining House approval.

"All the evidence is that marijuana is a mainstream substance," he 
said, "and it is currently being regulated by an illicit market and 
tens of millions of dollars are being shipped out of New Hampshire."

Even a keenly pro law-enforcement lawmaker, Rep. David Welch, 
R-Kingston, is intrigued by the potential revenue and savings that 
could be generated by taxing and regulating marijuana.

"It's kind of a strange situation because there is money there and we 
just lost $110 million this morning," said Welch, of the House 
Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee.

Welch was talking about the latest budgetary bad news, the loss of 
Joint Underwriting Account funds after a New Hampshire Supreme Court decision.

Committee Recommends Tax-And-Regulate Study

A major supporter of reforming marijuana laws, Matt Simon, 33, said 
he was pleasantly surprised last week to see the House Criminal 
Justice Committee vote to recommend the tax-and-regulate marijuana 
bill go to an interim study.

If the House votes for the study, the committee would study the bill 
and report back to the House in November.

The proposal narrowly missed, by an 8-10 vote, gaining a committee 
recommendation that the House pass the bill.

Simon, a former college English professor and the executive director 
of the NH Coalition for Common Sense Marijuana Policy, said there are 
economic reasons for supporting such a bill.

A study in 2005 by Jeffrey Miron, a Harvard University economics 
professor, showed New Hampshire could raise $5.6 million in taxes and 
save $20 million in enforcement costs by taxing and regulating marijuana.

In addition, Simon said the bill, which would legalize the possession 
and sale of marijuana, would cut out the criminal drug-dealing 
element, including Mexican drug cartels.

Ultimately, existing laws are out of step with how people in New 
Hampshire think about marijuana, Simon said.

A poll conducted by Simon's group in April 2008 showed Granite State 
voters favor reducing penalties for marijuana possession by a 53 to 
34 percent. They also favored medical marijuana reform by 71 to 21 
percent, he said.

Less Support Among Police Chiefs

Still, many in law enforcement oppose decriminalization, saying 
legalizing marijuana would promote use of harder drugs and lead to more crime.

Pelham police Chief Joseph Roark said most crimes in his community 
are drug related and most drug users' habits started with smoking marijuana.

"To me, marijuana is an illegal drug and, in the vast amount of 
times, it is a drug user's first drug," he said.

So, whether people steal to get money to buy marijuana, or they steal 
to get money for harder drugs, marijuana use is contributing to crime, he said.

Roark said he has seen many instances where enforcement of marijuana 
laws, leading to arrest or a diversion program, has encouraged people 
to change their ways.

Some parents might not even discover their children are using 
marijuana if possession is decriminalized and subject only to a fine, 
Roark said.

He also said it would make it harder for police to combat drug 
dealing since sellers could sell smaller amounts without risking 
arrest or detection of the sale of harder drugs.

There are lawmakers, too, who clearly oppose marijuana legalization, 
including Rep. Charles McMahon, R-Windham.

"I'm opposed," he said. "I believe it is a doorway to drug use and 
the increased use of drugs.

In Newton, where federal authorities confiscated 1,600 pounds of 
marijuana in 2006, police Chief Larry Streeter said he thinks the 
drug is bad for people and for society, and it should remain illegal.

Decriminalizing marijuana would create a legal means of self 
medication and impairment.

"I think society is too permissive as it is," Streeter said.

Supporters of decriminalization say criminal punishment -- up to one 
year in jail and a $1,000 fine -- for smoking or possessing a small 
amount of marijuana is harsh.

Mike Cutler of Brookline, 61, is a lawyer who supported the marijuana 
decriminalization initiative approved by 65 percent of Massachusetts 
residents in November 2008.

Ultimately, voters decided it was an issue better dealt with at home 
than in the criminal justice system.

"Parents felt they would rather deal with this in their kitchens, as 
opposed to courthouses," Cutler said.

Possession of an ounce of marijuana or less is a civil infraction 
punishable by a fine of $100 in Massachusetts.

Bay State Law Hasn't Affected Enforcement

Two Massachusetts police chiefs said little has changed since the 
decriminalization law went on the books.

Lawrence police Chief John Romero said he doesn't support legalizing 
marijuana, but added decriminalization has not affected drug enforcement.

"Most of our cases of marijuana are large scale (more than an 
ounce)," Romero said.

That was the case before decriminalization and it has been the case 
since decriminalization.

North Andover Police Department spokesman Paul Gallagher said there 
probably have been fewer citations under decriminalization than there 
were arrests for marijuana possession before the law took effect.

There has been a problem with nonpayment of fines, but not with the 
department's ability to police, Gallagher said.

"I do not believe it has been a problem," he said.

Medical Use, Decriminalization Are Connected

Changing attitudes about marijuana have taken root in 14 states. 
These are places where medical marijuana use has been legalized.

Last year, New Hampshire's attempt to legalize marijuana for 
medicinal use fell only two votes shy in the Senate of overturning 
the governor's veto of the bill. The House successfully overcame the veto.

This year, the progress of the proposed decriminalization bill 
depends a good deal on the recommendation it gets from the Justice Committee.

It still remains to be seen how the bill would fare in the Senate or 
if Gov. John Lynch would sign it.

Welch, a member of the Justice Committee, said the decriminalization 
bill makes sense "because our law enforcement people have more 
important things to do than chasing someone who is smoking a little 
bit of marijuana."

Welch said his thinking about marijuana laws changed after talks with 
police officers revealed selective enforcement.

Some of them would arrest a person who possessed a small amount of it 
and other officers would not.

Welch recalled something he saw at a DWI checkpoint five or six years ago.

Police officers stopped a driver who has a joint. They searched the 
car and found nothing else illegal in it. Eventually, Welch said, 
police let the man go, tossing the joint down a sewer drain.

"After that particular incident, I started changing my mind about 
marijuana use," Welch said.

Pratt said the interesting thing about the pending marijuana bills is 
bipartisan support for and opposition to them."It's odd, it's the 
weirdest thing I've seen up there," Pratt said. "There are members of 
both parties who support and oppose it."
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