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Sunday, January 13, 2013

Capitol Watch: Stars aligning for medical marijuana to become law in NH in 2013

After years of battling to legalize marijuana for medical patients, supporters believe they’ll finally be able to exhale.

Last year, Massachusetts and Connecticut enacted laws permitting patients to use doctor-approved marijuana, leaving New Hampshire as the only state in New England to prohibit medical marijuana use. ...

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After years of battling to legalize marijuana for medical patients, supporters believe they’ll finally be able to exhale.

Last year, Massachusetts and Connecticut enacted laws permitting patients to use doctor-approved marijuana, leaving New Hampshire as the only state in New England to prohibit medical marijuana use.

But with growing public approval and a new governor in office, supporters believe the state is primed to finally make the move in 2013.

“We definitely think we’re in very good position to pass a medical marijuana bill this year. That’s our only focus,” said Matt Simon, a Goffstown-based legislative analyst for the Marijuana Policy Project, which advocates for marijuana reform across the country.

“This is an issue that’s been important to a lot of people for a long time in this state,” said Rep. Donna Schlachman, D-Exeter, who has introduced a medical marijuana bill in the House of Representatives. “This is a medicine, and we are restricting patient access to a drug that can help them. … It’s really time we put this behind us.”

Twice in the last four years, proposals came within several votes of becoming law at the Statehouse.

In 2009, H.B. 648 reached the governor’s desk with majority support in the House and Senate, only to be shot down by Gov. John Lynch. Then last year, S.B. 409 also passed both houses, this time falling two votes short in the Senate of overriding Lynch’s veto.

But now, with Lynch out of office, new Gov. Maggie Hassan, who voted three times as a state senator in favor of medical marijuana, has already stated her support.

“If appropriately regulated, with controlled and limited dispensing, Governor Hassan supports allowing access to medical marijuana for patients,” Hassan spokesman Marc Goldberg said.

Supporters believe it will once again find support from both parties in both houses of the Legislature.

The 2009 bill was sponsored by Democrats and passed by a Democratic-led Legislature. The 2012 version was sponsored in the Senate by three Republicans and earned strong support from both parties in the Republican-led House.

“I think it probably has a better chance of passing this year,” said Senate President Peter Bragdon, R-Milford, who voted in favor of S.B. 408 last year.

“I think we’ve overcome the partisan divide on this issue,” said Simon, of the Marijuana Policy Project. “It’s a basic fundamental freedom issue that individuals should be able to use medical marijuana if they’re suffering to relieve their pain.”

The public has already showed its support for the bill.

Last week, a poll conducted by Public Policy Polling of North Carolina showed 68 percent of New Hampshire respondents were in favor of permitting marijuana for medical use and 70 percent said they believe the drug to be safer than Oxycontin, a legal painkiller, for treating pain.

“There’s more danger in our communities from our current prescription drugs than will be faced with this one,” Schlachman said. “The danger of overdosing on marijuana is that you fall asleep.”

Further, 52 percent of the poll’s respondents indicated they would support a plan to decriminalize marijuana and to allow state officials to regulate and tax it.

Voters in Colorado and Washington opted to change their laws this year, and a pair of bills proposing to decriminalize marijuana have been introduced in the New Hampshire House, as well. But advocates don’t expect those bills to gain much traction this year.

“That could change after medical marijuana finally passes,” Simon said. “But it’s not going to be our emphasis this year.”

In past years, law enforcement officials have expressed concerns over changing the state’s marijuana laws to conflict with federal law, which prohibits use of the drug. But this year, some of the strongest objections may come from Republican lawmakers who
are concerned about the growing government bureaucracies required to oversee and administer the drug.

Schlachman’s 20-page proposal specifically outlines many of those details.

“It addresses just about everything you could possibly think of, who qualifies, how do you get a physician to say this is what is needed,” Schlachman said.

“I supported this last year, but other versions I have not supported are setting up a large state bureaucracy,” Bragdon said. “Depending on how it’s structured, it may gain or lose votes.”

Despite the charms, both sides remain optimistic that, by this time next year, patients will have a new tool to battle their pain. Schlachman’s bill, along with others facing the Legislature, will likely be referred next week for study in a House committee.

“I’ve really heard nothing but support,” Schlachman said. “It’s really a matter of patient safety and doctors being able to help.”

Jake Berry can be reached at 594-6402 or jberry@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Berry on Twitter (Telegraph_JakeB).