House Committee Deals Setback to Marijuana Sentencing Reform
CONCORD, NEW HAMPSHIRE — Supporters of the effort to reduce marijuana penalties in New Hampshire knew they'd encounter skeptics in the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, and that proved to be the case this afternoon when the committee voted HB 1623 "Inexpedient to Legislate." Sponsored by Reps. Jeffrey Fontas (D-Nashua), Andrew Edwards (D-Nashua), and Charles Weed (D-Keene), HB 1623 would reduce the penalty for possessing small amounts of marijuana from a class A misdemeanor to a violation punishable by a maximum fine of $200.
Fontas, who serves on the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said he was happy to at least see a comprehensive discussion of the issue. "We're looking forward to taking the conversation to the floor of the House," he said following the session.
Debate over the bill was characterized by lively exchanges, with Reps. David Welch (R-Kingston), Timothy Robertson (D-Keene) and Ellen Nielsen (D-Claremont) speaking strongly in favor of the measure.
Welch, former chair of the committee, urged his colleagues to consider the unintended consequences of giving young people criminal convictions for marijuana possession. He said reducing the penalty to a violation would allow young offenders to retain eligibility for financial aid for college.
Welch also pointed out that marijuana use is so prevalent among teens, even police departments can't afford to discriminate against job applicants who have used marijuana.
"To not support this is hypocritical," he told the committee.
The vote means the bill will still go to the house floor, where a roll call vote is expected. Although the committee vote means the bill won't receive its recommendation, supporters still expect a lively debate.
"It's clear that legislators are becoming increasingly concerned about the unintended consequences of Marijuana Prohibition," explained Matt Simon, executive director of the New Hampshire Coalition for Common Sense Marijuana Policy. "Based on this vote, it seems discussing sensible marijuana policy still makes some people uncomfortable. But people sure are talking, and they're realizing the consequences of penalties that far exceed the offense they're supposed to correct."
Eleven states – including conservative strongholds such as North Carolina, Mississippi, Nebraska and Ohio – have laws similar to what HB 1623 proposes. Maine and New York have had such laws for years and the Vermont Senate approved a similar measure within the past week. According to government data, marijuana use rates for teens and adults are no different in decriminalized states than they are for states that jail smalltime users.