Pubdate: Tue, 30 Mar 2010
Source: Telegraph, The (Nashua, NH)
Copyright: 2010 Telegraph Publishing Company


Thirteen years ago, Rep. Timothy Robertson, D-Keene, introduced
legislation that would decriminalize possession of less than 11/2
ounces of marijuana from a criminal misdemeanor to a violation.

That 1997 bill (HB 118) -- the earliest such bill to be found in the
state's electronic archives that date back to 1989 -- was referred to
the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, where it was
summarily stamped with the dreaded "inexpedient to legislate" tag by a
17-0 vote. The House of Representatives promptly followed suit by
killing the bill on a voice vote.

Not surprisingly, a lot has changed in the intervening decade in terms
of the public's attitude toward personal marijuana use and state laws
that apply to it.

In January, an ABC News/Washington Post poll found Americans close to
evenly divided on "legalizing the possession of small amounts of
marijuana for personal use" -- 51 percent opposed to 46 percent in
favor. That was a far cry from a similar poll administered in May
1997, where 75 percent of the respondents voiced their opposition.

That same shift in opinion is evident in statehouses across the
country. Today, 13 states have laws on the books that have
decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana, including
neighboring Maine and Massachusetts.

Unfortunately, it doesn't appear New Hampshire is going to join them
- -- at least not this year -- despite a strong vote to do so earlier
this month in the House of Representatives.

On March 10, the House voted 214-137 in a favor of an amended bill (HB
1653) by another Keene Democrat -- Rep. Steven Lindsey -- that would
impose a $200 civil fine for possession of up to one quarter ounce of

Offenders under the age of 18 also would be required to complete a
drug awareness program and to participate in a community service
project within one year of the offense. And, of course, their parents
would be notified.

Under current state law, possession of any amount of marijuana is a
misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in county jail and a fine up to
$2,000, though judges generally impose no jail time and much smaller

The vote represented the second time in the past three years that the
House voted in favor of decriminalization. In 2008, after the House
approved a similar bill 193-141, the Senate rejected the bill on a
voice vote.

And like two years ago, Gov. John Lynch moved quickly to remove any
suspense. Immediately after the House vote, the governor announced he
would veto the measure if it were to reach his desk, pretty much
ending any likelihood of the bill becoming law this session.

Among the reasons cited by the governor were that marijuana possession
is illegal under federal law, he feared use of the drug would increase
and that the change in law would send a message to young adults that
some marijuana use is acceptable.

As we stated two years ago in supporting the earlier decriminalization
bill, we disagree with the governor on this issue. For us, all of his
concerns are outweighed by the long-term damage a criminal conviction
can have on the lives of these young people -- whether they are
seeking a college scholarship, a job or entrance into the military.
That is a big price to pay for what in many cases amounts to little
more than a youthful indiscretion.

We also find the governor's swift denunciation at odds with his strong
support for legislation (SB 500) approved by the Senate last week that
is intended to streamline the state's criminal justice system and save
taxpayer money in the process.

We can't think of too many better ways to help unclog the state's
court system -- particularly as it prepares to embark on the first of
its furlough days Friday to help mitigate the budget crisis -- than to
remove low-level cases such as the possession of small amounts of
marijuana from the daily dockets. 
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