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Into the weeds
Study commission on pot legalization makes progress

12/21/17
By Ryan Lessard news@hippopress.com



 Despite earlier concerns that a committee tasked with studying marijuana legalization was stacked mostly with legalization opponents, advocates say commission members are making good-faith efforts to study the issue objectively.

 
Concerns alleviated
When House Bill 215 passed the Senate, it removed plans to include traditionally pro-legalization representatives from the study commission, including members of the Marijuana Policy Project, an advocacy group, and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire. That left several lawmakers, all of whom had voted against legalization bills in the past, and representatives from state agencies who would be involved in regulating a legal marijuana market. One of the lawmakers, Sen. William Gannon, is arguably the most outspoken person against marijuana legalization in the legislature.
Matt Simon with the Marijuana Policy Project was not happy with the makeup of the committee and spoke out against the changes. But since then, he said, some changes have been made that put those concerns at ease.
Gov. Chris Sununu, empowered to appoint a member of the public to the committee, chose physician and former Republican state Rep. Joe Hannon. Hannon was a champion of moderate drug policies like needle exchanges during his time in office and Simon said he’s someone with “an open mind.”
And the New Hampshire Bar Association appointed attorney Paul Twomey, someone Simon said has been an advocate for legalization.
“All the reservations expressed in the past are really no longer relevant,” Simon said. “This commission is going to be meeting and they seem sincere about learning everything they can, separating fact from fiction. So people like me are doing everything we can to help facilitate that learning experience.”
Rep. Patrick Abrami, a Republican from Stratham who is serving as chair of the committee, set the tone in its first organization meeting on Oct. 17. Abrami said he told members to leave their biases at the door and to approach the issue of marijuana legalization objectively. 
He said the goal of the commission is not to recommend whether or not the state should pass legalization law, but what the best way to execute such a law would be.
“We want it to be done right if we do it,” Abrami said.
Whether the state legalizes marijuana is a question for lawmakers that comes up perennially and Simon is confident that eventually its bipartisan support will grow into the majority it needs to become law. Abrami said he just wants to be ready if that happens, and avoid repeating missteps by states that have come before.
 
So far
There have been three regular meetings to date, the most recent occurring on Dec. 18. In initial meetings, the commission heard presentations from the National Conference of State Legislators (for an overview of what other states have done), a report by the state Department of Health and Human Services on how medical marijuana implementation has been going in New Hampshire, as well as presentations by the Banking Department and the Department of Agriculture, Markets and Food. 
Simon gave an hour-long presentation in a recent meeting, which included an update on what is happening in the region. Maine and Massachusetts legalized marijuana by referendum in the 2016 election and Vermont’s governor is poised to sign a bill in January that would legalize private cultivation, possession and sharing of cannabis, but no open retail market.
In the most recent meeting, the committee heard from Andrew Freedman, the former point-man in the Colorado governor’s office who implemented legalization there, via Skype. Freedman is now running a private consulting firm.
Abrami said he hopes to hear from Washington and Oregon when the committee reconvenes in January and start to meet twice a month. The spring will be spent hearing from rest of the states that have legalized marijuana, of which there are eight in total.
He expects that by May or June the commission will be focusing on more of the details, and sifting through various policies for regulation and taxation. He said some members might be of the position that they want to “tax the hell” out of legal cannabis, but he said that wouldn’t accomplish some of the main goals of legalization, which include putting an end to the black market and thereby severing one of the ways people may transition from marijuana to hard drugs like fentanyl or cocaine.
An option that’s been floated occasionally in the public sphere has been selling marijuana at state-run liquor stores, but Simon and Abrami say that hasn’t been seriously considered at the study commission meetings. 
“I’ll tell you right now, that’s not going to happen,” Abrami said.
For one, Abrami said, there are concerns that doing something like that would hurt liquor sales by scaring away customers. Simon also said there are legal problems.
“You would have state employees who are required by a state law to commit a federal crime. That would be a much stickier situation than if the state simply licenses or allows private actors to take that risk,” Simon said.
For now, Abrami said it’s too soon to speculate on what the final recommendations due on Nov.1, 2018, will include. He said the committee is still trying to sift through the facts and let them speak for themselves.
“We’re rolling up our sleeves and getting into the weeds here, no pun intended,” Abrami said. 





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