CONCORD, N.H. — A last-ditch effort to legalize recreational cannabis this year in New Hampshire is running into skepticism, even from some who favor legalization in principle.
Lawmakers have cobbled together an amendment in hopes of satisfying Governor Chris Sununu, who announced this month that he’d support a marijuana legalization model that gives the state control of distribution and access.
But stakeholders testified Tuesday that they have concerns about the state-run model as proposed. Some cited fixable problems in the bill’s text and opportunities for greater clarity. Others said the legislation isn’t worth salvaging.
Paul Morrissette, a partner with East Coast Cannabis, which operates just across the border in Maine, said he’d love to do business in New Hampshire, too — but not if the state is the only buyer.
“We cannot justify spending millions and millions of dollars to put up cannabis cultivation and manufacturing to supply the state, who’s going to decide whether they’re going to buy it at all and, if they do, what they’re going to pay me for my product,” he said.
Marijuana remains illegal at the federal level, so interstate cannabis commerce is a no-go. That leaves unresolved questions about how New Hampshire would establish a supply chain for its state-run stores while mitigating the inherent risks and fluctuations that come with running an agricultural business, Morrissette said.
“I want to see legalization here. I want to participate,” he said. “This just structurally is not going to work.”
Morrissette told the House Commerce committee that they should “throw this bill in the trash and start over with a good bill.”
Others raised concerns about how the legislation would impact New Hampshire’s existing program for medical marijuana.
Michael Holt, an administrator with the state’s therapeutic cannabis program, said the legislation appears to allow dual-use licenses for alternative treatment centers to participate in retail sales. Without that feature, the bill would jeopardize the viability of the state’s therapeutic cannabis program, depriving patients of treatment options, he said.
Holt noted, though, that some provisions appear to contradict each other, so an amendment could clarify the role of dual-use licenses.
Matt Simon, who handles government relations for Prime Alternative Treatment Centers, said allowing the dual-use licenses could lead to a workable compromise. If, however, lawmakers move forward with a model that allows state-run stores exclusively, that would be “an unworkable boondoggle” that resembles the bill lawmakers rejected last year.
The current proposal, which draws from a 2022 bill that died in the Senate, calls for separate cannabis stores to be managed by the New Hampshire Liquor Commission, which controls sales of liquor and wine throughout the state. (The bill that died in the Senate this year would have allowed privately owned cannabis stores.)
When he announced his support May 12 for what he called “the right way” to legalize cannabis, Sununu said having the government handle marketing, sales, and distribution would help to keep harmful substances away from kids. The state would not impose any taxes on cannabis sales, he said.
A poll released Tuesday by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center found that 72 percent of Granite Staters support marijuana legalization and 60 percent support a “state control” model. More than one in four said Sununu’s endorsement made them more likely to support cannabis legalization.
Most of the Democrats and independents who oppose the “state control” model prefer a different approach to legalization, while “nearly all” the Republicans who oppose it said they don’t want to legalize recreational marijuana, the pollsters reported.
The proposal for state-run stores has backing from the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire. The group’s policy director, Frank Knaack, testified Tuesday that New Hampshire continues to arrest Black people on marijuana charges at disproportionately high rates, even though white people use cannabis just as frequently. So legalization is a matter of racial justice, he said.
Republican Representative John Hunt of Rindge, the committee’s chair, introduced the amendment. He told the Globe he wasn’t surprised by the feedback the committee received Tuesday, and he said he’ll do his best to hammer out a solution ahead of a tight deadline. The bill has to be out of committee next week, he said.
Even if lawmakers decide not to move forward with this amendment in 2023, the topic isn’t going away. Hunt noted that the Senate is working on a commission to study cannabis legalization, and the House has a bill retained in committee that could make its way to the House floor in early 2024.