A New Hampshire commission charged with drafting legislation to legalize marijuana through a system of state-controlled stores decided at its final meeting on Monday not to issue recommendations at all. The conclusion leaves open questions about how lawmakers will proceed with cannabis reform in the coming 2024 session.
After months of meetings, the 19-member panel ultimately failed to reach consensus on the issue. Adding to the disarray was a last-minute demand by Gov. Chris Sununu (R)—who has threatened to veto legislation that he disagrees with—that retail storefronts be limited to just 15 statewide and that marijuana businesses be barred from lobbying or making political contributions.
One member of the group, Sen. Becky Whitley (D), seemed to blame Sununu for the anticlimactic result.
But while the governor’s new demands may have been the breaking point, the commission’s progress for the past several weeks has been marked by frustration and infighting among members, some of whom opposed legalization altogether.
At the commission’s previous meeting this month, for example, one member said the emerging proposal was “the most irresponsible, dangerous legislation that I have ever participated in.”
The panel was initially formed this summer to consider state-run cannabis stores, a model supported by Sununu that would mirror how the state handles liquor sales. But in September, members turned to consideration of an alternative, franchise-style system, under which the state would regulate the marijuana industry and oversee its look and feel while private licensees would handle cultivation and day-to-day retail sales.
The bulk of the commission’s recent meetings have been dedicated to a line-by-line review of draft legislation circulated by the committee chair, Sen. Daryl Abbas (R), which is dated October 2. Abbas’s staff initially described the bill as “extremely fluid” and intended only as a beginning reference point.
After hours of meandering, sometimes standoffish discussions, members were still at odds on numerous issues, including penalties for public consumption of marijuana and how to fold the state’s existing medical marijuana dispensaries, known as alternative treatment centers (ATCs), into the new regulatory system.
Abbas incorporated his notes from the commission meetings into a revised draft, which his staff aimed to have available last week but didn’t actually circulate until the beginning of Monday’s final commission meeting. Some members said they weren’t sure why certain revisions were made, while others noted that planned additions left out of the revised bill.
Monday’s panel vote against issuing recommendations doesn’t necessarily kill legalization efforts in New Hampshire, but many observers see it as a bad sign of the proposal’s chances in the legislature. The state is the only jurisdiction in New England where marijuana remains illegal.
“It’s still possible that a legalization bill will pass in 2024, but the odds definitely seem lower after today’s meeting,” said Matt Simon, the director of public and government relations at medical marijuana provider GraniteLeaf Cannabis. “The future of cannabis policy in New Hampshire is clear as mud.”
Simon, who attended virtually all of the commission meetings as an observer and guest speaker, said the group’s winding process was partly to blame for its failure to issue recommendations.
“A study commission usually begins by evaluating its goals, identifying some of the key policy decisions that will need to be made, scheduling relevant expert testimony and forming a plan to study the issues,” he said. “Unfortunately, this study commission spent the majority of its meetings wading through a first draft of the legislation. I can’t help but think that much of that time would have been better spent hearing from policy experts and learning more about the experiences of other states so they could make informed decisions for New Hampshire.”
Ultimately Simon said he still expected a franchise-based model to be filed in New Hampshire’s legislature next year, but he predicted that “it will have less steam behind it after this experience.”
That means less certainty for both ATCs and their patients, he told Marijuana Moment.
“Our primary goal was to ensure that the Therapeutic Cannabis Program and the ATCs would have a clear path forward,” he said, “and that patients wouldn’t be left behind in the transition to adult-use cannabis. Unfortunately, the draft bill presented today did not meet that basic standard.”
(Disclosure: Simon supports Marijuana Moment’s work via a monthly Patreon pledge.)
Another advocate, Timothy Egan, chair of the board of advisors for the New Hampshire Cannabis Association (NHCANN), said he wasn’t surprised by the commission’s failure to reach a consensus. “This was not structured to reach an amenable conclusion,” he said of the committee process.
“This commission was filled with prohibitionists, which is counterintuitive when trying to study the feasibility of an industry, as they already don’t think it feasible before even reaching the table,” Egan, who previously served as a state representative, added, noting the panel had ignored NHCANN’s list of recommended experts that should testify, which included regulators from Vermont and Maine. The commission also “refused to honor the bill’s requirements to have NHCANN be called to testify,” referring to the law that created the commission.
On top of the panel’s makeup and failure to consult regulators from other states, Egan said that Sununu’s “last minute rug pulling was annoying.”
“15 stores stores only!?!” he told Marijuana Moment in an email. “That it will be easier for one [multi-state operator] company to come in and own the market, set wage standards and set prices. Where is the small business spirit being recognized?”
As for Sununu’s requested anti-lobbying provisions, Egan called it “a joke,” noting that other regulated industries—including alcohol, tobacco, sports betting and charitable gaming—all engage in lobbying in New Hampshire.
Sununu said earlier this month that he believes legalization in the Granite State is “inevitable,” although he’s also “not a huge believer” in the idea. Ultimately, the commission’s decision to not issue recommendations may free the governor from having to either sign or veto a legalization bill before his term is up. Sununu has said he won’t seek reelection in 2024.
- Allows the state to control distribution and access
- Keeps marijuana away from kids and out of schools
- Controls the marketing and messaging of the sale of marijuana
- Prohibits “marijuana miles” or the over-saturation of marijuana retail establishments
- Empowers municipalities to choose to limit or prohibit marijuana retail establishments
- Reduces instances of multi-drug use
- Does not impose an additional tax so as to remain competitive
Rep. John Hunt (R), a commissioner who chaired the House Commerce and Consumer Affairs Committee this year, worked extensively on marijuana reform issues during the 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.
Hunt’s House panel, however, reached an impasse on the complex legislation, which was being considered following Sununu’s surprise announcement that he backed state-run legalization. Meanwhile the Senate defeated a more conventional legalization bill, HB 639, despite its bipartisan support.
The underlying commission legislation that the governor signed into law with the legalization study provisions would also remove an existing requirement that pain patients try opioid-based treatments first before receiving a medical cannabis recommendation for their condition.
It also includes provisions to clarify that the state’s hemp law is not intended to authorize the sale of hemp-derived intoxicating products, such as delta-8 THC.
In May, the House separately defeated a different marijuana legalization amendment that was being proposed as part of a Medicaid expansion bill.
Also, the Senate 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 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. (Full Story)