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Matt Simon
Sunday, March 18, 2012

Medical marijuana prognosis looks good

Guest Commentary

Nearly three years have passed since House and Senate lawmakers first approved a medical marijuana bill to protect patients with debilitating illnesses in New Hampshire.

That bill fell just short of becoming law in 2009, when an effort to override Gov. John Lynch’s veto passed the House but failed by only two votes in the Senate.

When the 2010 election resulted in Republican supermajorities in both chambers of the General Court, many felt this issue would be placed on hold for two years. On the contrary, last year the GOP-dominated House showed it wasn’t at all afraid to pass medical marijuana, voting to approve the measure in a 221-96 landslide.

Last year’s bill reached a stalemate in the Senate, when senators voted to table the bill rather than casting an up-or-down vote, but this year patients and their advocates are feeling more optimistic than ever about their chances. Their new bill features three Republican senators as sponsors.

So what objections remain?

First, the attorney general’s office points out that marijuana remains illegal under federal law and says the program could lead to interventions in New Hampshire by federal agents. Second, it observes that, in a few states, badly implemented medical marijuana laws have led to undesirable outcomes.

When considering the merits of these objections, New Hampshire legislators should focus on two very useful counterexamples: Vermont and Maine.

Vermont and Maine have been protecting medical marijuana patients from arrest since 2004 and 1999, respectively. There have been no federal raids on patients or caregivers in either state, and the laws continue to enjoy strong public support.

After years of allowing patients and their caregivers to grow their own marijuana, both states recently approved the addition of state-regulated dispensaries to improve patients’ access.

Have these reforms led to increased rates of recreational marijuana use and teen use in Maine and Vermont? According to government surveys, they have not. In fact, the federal government’s own data shows that teens and adults use marijuana at a nearly identical rate in all three states.

Unfortunately, the U.S. attorney for New Hampshire has indicated that dispensaries here would not necessarily be safe from federal prosecution. Thus, Granite State lawmakers appear to be left with two policy options: they can continue leaving desperate patients to fend for themselves on the black market, or they can acknowledge their plight and permit them to simply take care of themselves.

SB 409 would protect patients from arrest and give them a way to access marijuana safely, legally and unobtrusively. A 2008 Mason-Dixon poll showed 71 percent of New Hampshire voters agree, with only 21 percent opposed.

Will 2012 be the year that public opinion finally translates into public policy?

Matt Simon, of Goffstown, is a legislative analyst for the Marijuana Policy Project of Washington, D.C.