New Hampshire Lawmakers And Advocates Blame Each Other Over Marijuana Legalization Bill’s Defeat | Turn 420
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New Hampshire Lawmakers And Advocates Blame Each Other Over Marijuana Legalization Bill’s Defeat

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New Hampshire lawmakers and marijuana reform advocates are pointing fingers at one another following the failure of a cannabis legalization bill last week. Some now accuse House Democrats of scuttling the measure in an effort to gain votes in November’s election by campaigning on the unresolved—and popular—issue.

The Democrat who led last week’s House vote to kill the proposal, however, maintains that the bill was simply bad legislation that resulted from a broken process. He believes opponents were right to vote it down and set their sights on something better in a future session.

“I’m totally pro-legalization of cannabis,” Rep. Jared Sullivan (D) told Marijuana Moment in an interview. But he asserted that Senate overplayed its hand when it made fundamental changes to the underlying bill that he previously passed the House and expected representatives to sign off on the revisions.

“They just were operating under the assumption that they could do whatever they want and pass a bill that’s so restrictive,” Sullivan said. “They were interested in dictating, ‘This is the way it will be, or nothing else,’ and I think they thought that the representatives were just going to go along with it. And, you know, we have a different view. And they were unwilling to consider our separate view.”

Last week’s vote in the House was widely seen as the last big hurdle for the legalization bill, HB 1633, on its path to becoming law. After House and Senate lawmakers passed separate versions of the measure, a bicameral conference committee hammered out a compromise, using the Senate-passed bill as a blueprint. The Senate OK’d the resulting bill last Thursday, but later in the day, rather than sign off on the bill—which Gov. Chris Sununu (R) had indicated he’d likely sign—the House voted to table it.

Ahead of that vote, Sullivan described the bill, which would have legalized cannabis sales through a government-run system of independently owned of franchise stores, as “the most intrusive, big-government marijuana program proposed anywhere in the country.”

“I, like many in this room, seriously want to legalize cannabis sales in New Hampshire,” he said on the floor. “But the fact is, despite the recent tweaks, this remains a terrible bill.”

The compromise bill would allow 15 stores to open statewide beginning in 2026 through a novel state-run franchise system. Though stores would be privately run, the government would oversee operations, including setting final prices on products. Purchases would incur a 15 percent “franchise fee”—effectively a tax, and home cultivation would remain illegal.

Marijuana possession wouldn’t become legal until 2026, once the state’s licensed market is up and running. At that point, adults could legally possess up to two ounces of marijuana. In the meantime, possession of up to one ounce of cannabis would carry a $100 maximum civil fine—an increase from the state’s current law that decriminalizes up to three-quarters of an ounce—effective immediately on enactment.

The proposal would limit each municipality to only a single cannabis retail establishment unless it’s home to more than 50,000 people, though 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 motion to table passed 178–173, with members of both parties voting in favor. A subsequent vote to take the measure off the table failed.

In the aftermath, Sullivan is now facing attacks from Republicans who supported the negotiated bill as well as legalization advocates. Both have criticized him and other Democrats who voted against the bill, saying they believe it’s an ill-conceived effort to win votes in the November election and potentially sets back the effort to end prohibition in the “Live Free or Die” state by at least several years.

“The House Democrats that campaign on supporting recreational cannabis voted against recreational cannabis so they can continue campaigning on this issue,” Sen. Daryl Abbas (R), who led a state commission on legalization last year that failed to accomplish its task of crafting a legalization bill, in an email to Marijuana Moment. “Clearly they are not interested in delivering results or being honest with their base.”

“Particularly Rep. Sullivan, who has already vowed to file legislation supporting recreational cannabis next term,” Abbas added, noting that Sullivan “championed the efforts to kill the legislation” and claiming that he “failed to participate on the commission he was appointed to draft legislation on this very subject.”

The advocacy group Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) echoed Abbas’s sentiments in an email blast to supporters.

“Last year, he was a member of the interim cannabis legalization study committee, which crafted what became the backbone of the Senate’s version of the bill,” MPP said of the Sullivan, going on to assert that he “failed to show up for the vast majority of the meetings, or ask to be replaced, squandering an opportunity to make a better Senate bill.”

“It would have been far easier to convince a prohibitionist governor to shift to a less risky model,” MPP’s email said, “than to convince them to pass a bill from scratch.”

With Sununu not seeking re-election and two leading Republican candidates to replace him as governor already on the record as opposing legalization, many warn that the vote to table HB 1633, however imperfect, could delay legalization in the Granite State for years to come.

Sullivan, for his part, takes umbrage at MPP’s argument that he could have influenced the bill earlier on, arguing that the state commission on which he served consisted largely of prohibitionists who had no interest in legalizing marijuana.

“That’s totally the reason we ended up here. They never really were negotiating in good faith,” he said, saying the commission was “set up to fail from the beginning.”

“It was never set up to be successful,” he contended. “They had two Democratic senators on there. One of them was the only Democratic senator who voted against legalization.”

As for claim that he failed to show up to commission meetings, he told Marijuana Moment that he works seasonally for UPS during the holiday season, in part because legislators in New Hampshire are not paid a salary. He says he told colleagues that they were free to replace him on the panel if necessary.

“That’s completely false,” he said of MPP’s claim he didn’t ask to be replaced. “I did say, ‘I can be replaced if people want me to be replaced,’ and they decided it wasn’t necessary, because the only weeks I couldn’t show up were, like, the last two or three weeks of it.”

Karen O’Keefe, MPP’s director of state policies, said she’s skeptical.

“Did he ask the speaker to replace him, and—if he says he did—does he have proof? It’s the speaker who makes the appointments,” she said, adding that Sullivan “obviously did not bother” to secure his own replacement.

“He wasn’t there, so it’s hard to say what he could’ve change if he’d shown up and fought for a stronger bill,” O’Keefe continued. “Or had he not taken up a seat at the table and let someone who would show up and be a fighter.”

Asked about the criticisms, Sullivan replied: “Reasonable people can come to different outcomes, and it doesn’t say anything about their character or intentions. It’s just sort of a different weighing of values.”

O’Keefe, however, maintains that Sullivan’s opposition to the final bill that failed last week was ill-founded, based more on a lack of information than reasonable disagreement.

“When I asked Rep. Sullivan what exactly he didn’t like about the franchise bill, he said he didn’t like the Liquor Commission controlling the look-and-feel of businesses and their names,” she said. “However, those were in the House bill he voted ‘yes’ on, not the franchise bill.”

“I spent vast amounts of time working to make HB 1633 as strong as is viable and helped secure several improvements, in addition to being the lead drafter of the original bill,” O’Keefe continued. “It’s maddening to see Rep. Sullivan kill it over its details, when he left his literal seat at the table empty.”

Sullivan stressed in the interview in Marijuana Moment that it’s wrong to frame the bill as one that House lawmakers generally agreed with, noting that during earlier House committee and floor votes, the body repeatedly passed on opportunities to make Senate-requested changes. House lawmakers of both parties said they disagreed with the Senate’s approach.

“Instead of rushing to pass a bill that we all know is flawed, let’s reject this amendment and insist on making better policies for our constituents,” Rep. Heath Howard (D) said last month of Senate-made changes to the bill. “We will only get one chance to create a well regulated market for adult-use cannabis, and it’s important we get it right.”

“I know the vast majority of my constituents want legalized cannabis,” Rep. Kevin Verville (R) added at the time. “They want it in New Hampshire and they want it sooner than later. But this is not the right approach for us.”

Even the bill’s Republican sponsor, Rep. Erica Layon (R), initially opposed the Senate changes, though she ultimately urged colleagues to send the compromise bill to the governor.

“I fought against the franchise model because I think a freer market solution is better for New Hampshire, however I ultimately supported the compromise for one very important reason,” Layon told Marijuana Moment in a statement. “I believe that while the franchise model is necessary for the bill to pass this year, the state will ultimately pivot away.”

Sullivan has nevertheless become a lightning rod for criticism in the wake of last week’s House vote to table the bill.

Sen. Tim Lang (R), who sat both on the state commission last year and on this month’s conference committee that negotiated the final bill, also suggested that House Democrats blocked the proposal to benefit themselves in the upcoming election.

“Since over half of the House Democrats voted against it, and legalization is literally in their platform, I think they saw a political path for November election campaigning that benefitted them,” Lang told Marijuana Moment in an email, “and chose politics over actually legalization.”

“This bill gave those who wanted legalization what they wanted,” he asserted.

Pressed on why he would blame Democrats in particular when the bill was sponsored, amended and championed by Republicans—based on policy input from the state’s Republican governor—Lang responded that GOP lawmakers “don’t have legalization in their party platform, like the NH Dems do.”

“Again, I think the Dems wanted to use this as a wedge issue in the coming election,” he repeated. “By passing legalization now, it takes the topic off the table.”

Sullivan acknowledged that he sees legalization as a likely issue in the November election, though he emphasized that his vote to table HB 1633 was a response to the bill’s substance and not a political gambit.

He downplayed warnings from critics that former U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R) is leading in the polls. Ayotte has already said she’d oppose legalization if elected.

“There’s so little polling, it’s hard to know. It’s just kind of a vibe,” Sullivan said. “But my vibe is that it’s going to be Joyce Craig versus Kelly Ayotte.”

Craig, a Democrat and three-term mayor of Manchester whose last term ended in January, recently sent out a press release in favor of legalization.

“This is an issue that is going to help people,” Sullivan said, presumably referring to Democrats, pointing to past polling showing 70 percent support for legalization among New Hampshire residents. “I don’t know what percent, but some people, it’s their top issue. I don’t know what percent, but some people, it’s they’re top issue.”

“I think that could be the difference between a couple points,” he added.

“People might be right,” he acknowledged. “We might have Kelly Ayotte, and maybe Democrats lose seats coming up, but I think that’s unlikely.”

Lang, the Republican senator, described marijuana legalization as “a 3%ish issue”—meaning “it could tilt an election by not more than 3% in either direction.”

Fueling the belief among some that House Democrats voted down the bill in order to benefit themselves politically, candidate Cinde Warmington tweeted last week that “When I’m governor, we’ll stop this nonsense and finally legalize cannabis.”

Others who voted for the tabling motion, such as Rep. Alissandra Murray (D), listed numerous concerns with the bill, including its increased criminal penalties for some cannabis conduct, the restrictive natures of the franchise approach and its lack of automatic expungements and home grow protections.

“To allow the state to tax and control the sale of a plant they have used to vilify and imprison the most marginalized for DECADES is utterly abhorrent,” Murray wrote, adding: “Next year, we will pass cannabis legalization that lets the free market thrive, promotes justice, and prioritizes access for our medical patients. And we will pass that legislation with a Democratic Governor and Democrat majorities in the House and Senate.”

While Sullivan has been the focus of criticism by Republicans and advocates such as O’Keefe at MPP, other legalization advocates were glad to see the negotiated legalization proposal scrapped.

Daryl Eames, founder of the New Hampshire Cannabis Association (NHCANN), had been pushing for lawmakers to reject the conference committee compromise, which he previously called a “Soviet Weed” bill that’s “wrong for New Hampshire,” claiming senators had “warped it beyond recognition.”

Eames told Marijuana Moment that he thinks advocacy organizations such as Marijuana Policy Project and ACLU, which supported passage of the negotiated bill, “in some ways were selling out the state.”

“They wanted to check off this state” as another legalization victory, Eames said, “and it didn’t seem to matter to them if there was 100 years of wreckage left behind.”

ACLU of New Hampshire, for its part, said in a press release that “legalization is not just a political squabble about economic benefits—the war on marijuana has real-life impacts.”

“Pushing legalization off yet another year makes clear that lawmakers are willing to ignore the will of their own constituents and are okay with continuing to needlessly ensnare around a thousand people—disproportionately Black people—in New Hampshire’s criminal justice system every year,” Devon Chaffee, the group’s executive director, said in a statement. “While politicians argue, the impacts of these arrests will continue to ruin lives.”

Eames’s own core objection to the proposal was the Liquor Commission’s close involvement in the industry through the bill’s franchise model, he said: “As soon as the Liquor Commission starts to come into the business, with its hands on plant-touching activities, that’s a line that they should not be crossing.”

Asked what path forward he sees for legalization in light of the uncertain coming election, Eames said he thinks 16 senators should band together and come up with a workable legalization plan of their own. That would mean enough votes to overcome a governor’s veto, and Eames thinks House lawmakers would likely sign off on such a proposal given their historical support of legalization—the most recent vote notwithstanding.

“We have 400 state reps, but we only have 24 senators. It’s always been everything dying in the Senate, or now something so vile coming out of the Senate,” he said. “It’s time for 16 senators to stand with the people and to stop standing with the governor, with the party power structures.”

Is that what he’ll push for next session?

“Absolutely,” Eames said. “It’s what we should have been requesting all along.”

That level of agreement in the Senate would be unprecedented—this session, for instance, marked the first time that a majority of senators voted in favor the reform at all—but Eames said if 16 senators did get on board with a reform plan it would allow “legalization in the best way possible for the state of New Hampshire.”

Layon, for her part, told Marijuana Moment she’s open to other lawmakers taking the lead on cannabis reform next session if they’re willing to commit to digging into the details, as she did this year.

“Anything that we do we needs close attention and a focus on the policy details” she said. “If there’s somebody who can lead that charge and put in as much focus as I did, they will have my support.”

But the lawmaker noted it wouldn’t be worth spending time and political capital on a legalization push “if it’s just a futile effort.”

“If we look and we can’t count to 16 in the Senate—which I don’t think we will—and if we have a governor who’s clearly against it, I don’t think it’s worth the effort,” she said. “Groundhog Day is a great movie, but we don’t need to relive the same cannabis story each year.”

Layon, who is up for reelection in November, also said she’s ready to dive back into the issue when it’s warranted.

“I’ll hold onto the playbook,” she said, “and we’ll move forward when we have a good chance at success.”

Lawmakers in the state 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 convened a 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.



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