Following considerable debate on the New Hampshire Senate floor on Thursday, state lawmakers have revised and approved a House-passed bill that would legalize marijuana in the state.

The measure, which senators advanced on a 14–9 vote, next heads to the Finance Committee before returning again to the chamber floor and then potentially going back to the House of Representatives for concurrence on recent changes.

The vote on HB 1633 marks the furthest ever a marijuana legalization bill has proceeded in New Hampshire—though questions still loom large as to whether both legislative chambers can agree on a plan that will win approval from Gov. Chris Sununu (R), who has long been skeptical of the reform but has recently said he would sign a bill that meets certain conditions.

Senators adopted a handful of amendments to the legislation before the floor vote, while rejecting others. Approved changes concern issues such as penalties for cannabis in vehicles, rules around municipal approval of marijuana retailers, lobbying restrictions on licensed businesses and where revenue would be allocated. Many of the offered amendments came from Senate President Jeb Bradley (R) even though he personally opposes legalization.

The differences with the House-passed legislation would need to be approved by lawmakers in that chamber or be hammered out in a conference committee.

“No cannabis policy will be perfect,” Sen. Daryl Abbas (R) said, arguing that the amended bill “was drafted to balance the public safety needs of our communities with the legalization of cannabis.”

Abbas said that in past legislative sessions, he’s seen “some really, really, really scary policies” proposed around legalization, claiming some would have allowed smoking marijuana openly outside the Capitol building.

He also noted that most polls show that a clear majority of New Hampshire adults support legalization. “Most of the polls are pretty straightforward, all well over 70 percent on this,” he said, though he added that most people being surveyed were asked “very simple questions.”

“I think the details are very important, and we’re going to discuss a lot more of those as this debate goes on,” Abbas said.

Opponents of the bill, however—including Sen. Bill Gannon (R), who unsuccessfully tried to table the bill when it first came up on the floor Thursday—warned that legalization would flood the state with drugs, encourage youth to use cannabis, increase crime and mental health issues and expand the existing illicit market.

“We are going to change the fabric of New Hampshire if we pass this legislation,” Gannon said.

Most of Thursday’s debate on the bill, which lasted three hours, centered on a dozen or so offered amendments.

One approved change from Bradley specifies that no marijuana licensee “may spend any funds to lobby or attempt to influence legislation” related to marijuana, nor may they “participate in political activity” or “contribute funds to any entity engaged in these activities.” As initially drafted, it also contained provision barring a person or entity controlling more than one cannabis establishment.

After splitting the amendment into two parts, senators approved the lobbying restriction on a 12–11 vote and denied the licensing restriction on a 15–8 vote.

Some critics have said the lobbying restriction—which was first suggested last year by the governor’s office as a state commission considered cannabis legalization—could raise constitutional free speech concerns.

Another Bradley amendment revised the bill’s section on municipal approval of the cannabis industry, laying out new rules for local elections, zoning and allowable contracts. Voters would be asked, “Shall we allow the operation of cannabis establishments within the town or city?” If a majority said yes, retail outlets would be approved. If not, the question could be returned to no less than three years after the initial vote.

Under the amendment, which passed 12–11 on a roll-call vote, local voters would only get to decide whether to allow cannabis businesses to operate if their governing bodies choose to put the question on the ballot or if advocates collect valid signatures from 5 percent of registered voters in support of a ballot measure.

A major change from Bradley—which he referred to as “the most important amendment of all the improvements that I’ve tried to make”—replaced the bill’s proposed marijuana advisory board with a “cannabis control commission” that would have the ability to approve new rules.

“If we’re going to protect public health, if we’re going to protect the kids in the state of New Hampshire, this board needs to be turned into a control commission,” Bradley said. “Everybody knows I don’t like this bill because of the public health implications. We can make it a little bit better with this amendment.”

Colleagues initially rejected the proposal on a 12–11 margin, but after a motion for reconsideration, they passed it 13–10. Some advocates oppose the creation of the commission with power over rulemaking, which they warn could ultimately delay implementation of any legalization law if the body drags its feet on rulemaking or adopts unworkable rules.

In terms of changes from other lawmakers, an amendment from Abbas removed from the marijuana advisory board a certified public health specialist appointed by a state commission, replacing that person with a “prevention specialist who is currently certified by the prevention certification board of New Hampshire.” That change was supported by the health-focused advocacy group New Futures. Lawmakers adopted it on a voice vote.

A change from Republican Sens. Tim Lang and Howard Pearl, meanwhile, added language creating a misdemeanor penalty for consuming cannabis in a vehicle. Any person with a driver’s license would also have it suspended for 60 days on a first offense and up to a year on subsequent offenses. It also specifies that no person or entity may have a financial interest in more than one marijuana establishment of any single category. That was also adopted on a voice vote.

Another amendment from Lang adjusted where state revenue from the legal cannabis industry would be allocated. Bradley supported the change, noting that it would stop money from going to schools—an idea he called “odious”—and senators approved it on a voice vote.

“For those of you really believe in kiddos,” he said, “I think it’s rather odious that we’re taking marijuana money and funding education. So this amendment dedicates that to property tax relief. I think that’s a pretty significant improvement.”

Abbas also supported the change, noting that while no committee had vetted the new funding proposal, there would be time for that later in the session.

The Senate rejected a proposed change from Bradley would have set a maximum 15 percent THC cap on cannabis products, which could also contain no more than 200 milligrams of THC per package, with serving sizes limited to 10 mg. Those limits would not have applied to cannabis flower.

It also would have made changes to the bill’s definition of “public place” that could make it a crime for someone to smoke marijuana in their own backyard unless there is a no trespassing sign posted and would have removed protections allowing adults to share cannabis with one another. The amendment would have further deleted non-discrimination protections from the bill, allowing people to lose their children, jobs or eligibility for organ transplants due to marijuana use. It failed 17–6.

Other amendments are expected once the bill lands in the Senate Finance Committee. Bradley, for example, withdrew a floor amendment around data collection and revenue allocation, saying he’d reintroduce the measure before the finance panel.

Legalization advocates cheered the milestone vote on Thursday but said there’s still a ways to go before marijuana’s legal in the Granite State.

“Fittingly, the ‘Live Free or Die’ state just became the first Republican-majority state legislature to vote to legalize cannabis for adults,” said Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP). “However, there are several steps to go before New Hampshire would stop being an island of prohibition.”

But the bill’s House sponsor, Rep. Erica Layon (R), told Marijuana Moment late Thursday that legalization advocates should be “wary of the details” of the Senate changes.

“I’m concerned that the bill as passed by the Senate is a step backwards for Granite Staters who use cannabis,” she said in a text message. “Senator Abbas’s insistence on Day One enforcement actions should make legalization proponents wary of the details of this bill.”

“Rational legalization is important to grow small businesses in and around cannabis, and to provide access to quality and safe cannabis for those who choose to consume,” she added. “The $8 million question is if the path of legalization can be changed meaningfully after significant taxpayer money is spent to begin its implementation. I’m not optimistic that we can change course after significant investment.”

Bradley, the Senate president, said recently that he hopes the bill will ultimately fail in his chamber—“I don’t want to see it get out of the Senate, period,” he told a local TV reporter—but added that he feels an obligation to make changes to the bill if it’s destined to clear the Senate.

“I’m gonna try to make it the most user friendly for New Hampshire,” he said.

On the floor, Bradley told fellow opponents of legalization to nevertheless vote for certain amendments to the bill, arguing that the changes represented improvements to the proposal.

“Those of us that don’t support this bill…have an obligation, in my opinion, because it has such a dramatic impact on the state of New Hampshire, to do everything possible that we can to improve it, if it’s going to pass,” the Senate president said. “Now, I know that some of the nine of us would probably just want to derail, and I appreciate that. Maybe that will happen. But if it isn’t going to happen, it needs to be a better process.”

The latest floor changes come on top of a sweeping amendment to the House-passed bill from Sen. Daryl Abbas (R) that was approved in the Senate Judiciary Committee last week. That amendment increased a proposed 10 percent surcharge on marijuana purchases in the House-passed version of the bill to 15 percent, and it extended the fee to include medical marijuana purchases. It also increased proposed penalties for public consumption of marijuana to include possible jail time and shifted the legislation’s proposed regulatory scheme to a novel, state-run franchise system under which the state’s Liquor Commission would oversee the look, feel and operations of retail stores.

The franchise model is one supported by the governor, who has in recent weeks said he’d only consider signing the bill if lawmakers follow strict criteria laid out by his office, including limiting the number of retail stores to 15 statewide.

“Fundamentally I don’t really love this idea anyway,” Sununu said, but explained that he sees legalization as “inevitable.”

Earlier this month, the Judiciary Committee became the first-ever Senate panel to sign off on a marijuana legalization proposal, approving it on a narrow, 3–2 vote. Before advancing the measure, HB 1633, the committee approved the broad amendment from Abbas, who chaired a failed state commission on legalization late last year.

In its current version, the proposal would allow 15 stores to open statewide under a novel state-run franchise system, under which the state’s Liquor Commission would oversee the look, feel and operations of the retail shops. All purchases would be subject to a 15 percent “franchise fee,” which effectively functions as a tax.

The bill also limits each municipality to only a single cannabis retail establishment unless it’s home to more than 50,000 people. Only two cities in the state, Manchester and Nashua, meet that threshold. Local voters would also need to pre-approve the industry in order for businesses to open in that jurisdiction.

The legalization proposal passed out of the House a month ago amid warnings from Abbas and some other senators that the bill would be dead on arrival in their chamber. Sununu similarly said he wouldn’t sign the bill in its House-passed form.

As passed by the House, the bill would have legalized through a so-called “agency store” model that Abbas and others in the Senate opposed. House lawmakers rejected an earlier amendment that included many revisions later made by Abbas, opting for the agency store model offered by Layon, the bill’s sponsor.

“I think this is an excellent bill,” Layon told colleagues ahead of the House vote, “and quite frankly I think it’s time for us to go ahead and vote on this bill, and let the other body deal with it.”

Layon has warned senators not to take House lawmakers’ votes for granted if they decided to make major changes to her bill.

Though advocates have said they’re pleased to see New Hampshire make progress toward legalization, they’re also concerned about some of the changes made by Abbas and the Senate.

ACLU of New Hampshire and other civil rights advocates, for example, have opposed the increased penalties for public consumption, warning that the more punitive would lead to disproportionately severe and lasting consequences and could end up costing the state more money because it will be required to provide defense lawyers for defendants who cannot afford one.

Abbas, however, has repeatedly complained about the smell of marijuana in public—both in legal jurisdictions and in parts of New Hampshire near neighboring states, where cannabis is legal. He’s at times called it the number one problem he has with the reform.

“Is this a huge win for the state? I’m not saying that,” he said in committee earlier this month. “I just have concerns right now because we’re dealing with what we can’t control. We can’t control what they do in Maine. We can’t control what they do in Vermont. We can’t control what they do in Massachusetts.”

With only several months left in Sununu’s term, observers are also weighing how the governor’s potential replacements might greet legalization. At least one possible successor, former U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R)—one of a handful of gubernatorial candidates that’s entered the race—said recently that she opposes legalizing marijuana for adults.

“I don’t think legalizing marijuana is the right direction for our state,” said Ayotte, who represented New Hampshire in the Senate from 2011 to 2017 and was previously the state’s attorney general from 2004 to 2009.

Lawmakers worked extensively on marijuana reform issues last session and attempted to reach a compromise to enact legalization through a multi-tiered system that would include state-controlled shops, dual licensing for existing medical cannabis dispensaries and businesses privately licensed to individuals by state agencies. The legislature ultimately hit an impasse on the complex legislation.

Bicameral lawmakers also convened the state commission tasked with studying legalization and proposing a path forward last year, though the group ultimately failed to arrive at a consensus or propose final legislation.

The Senate defeated a more conventional House-passed legalization bill last year, HB 639, despite its bipartisan support.

Last May, the House defeated marijuana legalization language that was included in a Medicaid expansion bill. The Senate also moved to table another piece of legislation that month that would have allowed patients and designated caregivers to cultivate up to three mature plants, three immature plants and 12 seedlings for personal therapeutic use.

After the Senate rejected the reform bills in 2022, the House included legalization language as an amendment to separate criminal justice-related legislation—but that was also struck down in the opposite chamber.

This story has been updated to include comments from the bill’s sponsor in the House.

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 Following considerable debate on the New Hampshire Senate floor on Thursday, state lawmakers have revised and approved a House-passed bill that would legalize marijuana in the state. The measure, which senators advanced on a 14–9 vote, next heads to the Finance Committee before returning again to the chamber floor and then potentially going back to  Read More  

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