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A medical-marijuana user prepares to smoke at home.
Friday, March 9, 2012

One vote is the difference, as House passes marijuana decriminalization bill

CONCORD – By choosing not to cast a vote Wednesday, House Speaker William O’Brien, R-Mont Vernon, allowed a bill to be passed that would decriminalize possession of up to a half-ounce of marijuana.

The bill, HB 1526, cleared the House by the slimmest of margins: a 162-161 vote. O’Brien announced that he was letting the measure pass by not voting on the matter.

Currently, anyone who possesses this much marijuana can face up to a year in jail and a fine of up to $2,500. The amended bill would make such possession a violation on the first offense with a fine of up to $250, and a fine of $500 the second time it occurred.

Anyone caught for possession a third time would face up to a year in jail and/or a fine of up to $1,000.

A second bill, HB 1705, that would have legalized marijuana sale for anyone 21 years or older was soundly defeated in the House by a 228-91 vote.

Rep. Kyle Tasker, R-Northwood, said the decriminalization bill was carefully crafted to discourage people from overusing marijuana but not burden with a criminal record a young person who is caught only one time.

“This is a calculated, reasonable compromise,” Tasker said.

Rep. Steve Shurtleff, D-Concord, said a half-ounce is “20 to 30 joints,” and that’s not just for recreational use.

“That crosses the line, and they are getting into the area of sales and distribution,” Shurtleff said.

A retired deputy U.S. marshal, Shurtleff said he would author legislation next year that decriminalized possession of a much smaller amount than in this bill.

In 2010, the Democratically controlled House had overwhelmingly endorsed a decriminalization bill for a quarter of an ounce of pot. The state Senate killed it by a voice vote after Gov. John Lynch had threatened to veto it.

A four-term Democrat not seeking re-election, Lynch is likely to have the same view about this measure, Press Secretary Colin Manning said.

“As the governor has said in the past, he will veto legislation that would essentially legalize marijuana,” Manning said. “Marijuana is a controlled drug that remains illegal under federal law. New Hampshire parents are working to keep their kids away from marijuana and other drugs. We should not make the jobs of parents or law enforcement harder by sending a false message that some marijuana use is acceptable.”

On legalizing pot, supporters called it a victimless crime and said state control and sale of marijuana would be no different than the state’s monopoly over liquor sales.

“People living in the ‘Live Free or Die’ state should be free to engage in activities they enjoy as long as they are not harming others or infringing on others’ rights,” said Rep. Mark Warden, R-Goffstown.

Rep. Tony Soltani, R-Windham, said legalizing marijuana sale is a slippery slope and would prompt similar efforts for other illegal acts.

“Do want to have prostitution as a form of revenue?” Soltani asked. “I certainly don’t want to be licensing prostitutes in New Hampshire. Please prohibit drug dealers from gaining a foothold here.”

Kevin Landrigan can reached at 321-7040 or klandrigan@nashuatelegraph.com; also check out Kevin Landrigan (@KLandrigan) on Twitter and don’t forget The Telegraph’s new, interactive live feed at www.nashuatelegraph.com/topics/livefeed.