A New Hampshire House committee voted to advance a bill that would make the state the last in New England to finally decriminalize marijuana possession.
The legislation, HB 640, would reduce the penalty for possessing one ounce or less of marijuana to a violation punishable by a fine of $100 for first-time offenses. Subsequent law enforcement encounters within a period of three years would see gradually increasing fines. Under current law, low-level cannabis possession is a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail.
On Tuesday, the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety voted 14-2 to advance the decrim bill to the House floor.
In recent years, the full House has approved similar legislation but it has died in the state Senate, largely due to vocal opposition from then-Gov. Maggie Hassan (D). But advocates are much more optimistic about advancing the bill this year because Hassan, who was recently elected to the U.S. Senate, was replaced by Chris Sununu (R), a decriminalization supporter.
“Now that marijuana is legal for adult use in two neighboring states, most of New Hampshire’s prohibitionists have grudgingly accepted that possession penalties ought to be reduced to a violation,” Matt Simon, New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project, told MassRoots in an interview. “In fact, only one person testified against the bill at the public committee hearing. It’s only a matter of time before the Legislature decides to scrap marijuana prohibition altogether, but, for now, this is an important step forward for the ‘Live Free or Die’ state.”
The bill’s statement of purpose says that it will “result in less time and resources spent on [marijuana] cases, allowing police and courts to spend more time and resources dealing with serious crimes.”
It also says the legislation will “address social and racial inequities in the New Hampshire criminal justice system” and decries how the current approach of giving people criminal records for possession “can lead to a lifetime of harsh consequences.”
The House committee also voted 15-1 on Tuesday to retain a separate full legalization bill for further study.
A poll last year found that 72 percent of Granite Staters support either decriminalizing or fully legalizing cannabis.
In 2014, the New Hampshire House became the first state legislative body in the U.S. to ever approve a bill to legalize marijuana, but it later died in the Senate.