State Senate Democratic Leader: Time For N.H. to Create Path to Marijuana Legalization

Dec 15, 2016

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  As of Thursday, it’s legal to grow, use, and possess marijuana in Massachusetts.

Voters there approved a referendum in November legalizing the drug. And with Maine in the midst of a recount of a similar referendum, it’s possible New Hampshire could soon be bordered by two states where pot is legal.

New Hampshire remains the only New England state that hasn't decriminalized the drug.

That's why Democratic state Senator Jeff Woodburn of Dalton says it's time for the Granite State to pursue legalization. The Senate Minority Leader says he plans to file a bill to create a pathway to marijuana legalization in the state.

Senator Woodburn spoke with NHPR's Morning Edition about the issue.

You talk about a "pathway to marijuana legalization." What would that look like?

First, the goal is to legalize, regulate, and restrict access of marijuana to children and young people that shouldn’t have it. You know, what’s happening around New Hampshire is occurring, and it’s not occurring generally speaking in terms of the legislature doing it, but more through referendums, things of that nature. So I think it’s important New Hampshire recognize what’s going on around us, but also listen to what the people are asking for. It’s important – I’m a civics teacher by background – that we have a legitimate government. That means the people have been asking in overwhelming surveys that they support marijuana being legalized and it’s important that our elected officials listen to and respond to their desires.

But doing it in an orderly fashion is essential. What I have in mind, and I’m very flexible, would be a firm date when legalization would occur in the future. But also a commitment of people to be around the table that understand that this date will be coming and that they’ll be working seriously to address the vast number of concerns that they have in terms of what would happen with legalization.

You’ve backed marijuana decriminalization in the past, but why now pursue full legalization?

I think now is the time. When you look at 25 percent of our country, marijuana is legal. If you look at all of our neighbors, they are now legal or moving towards legal, including the country of Canada, our neighbor to the north. And the people overwhelmingly want this, so I think as the Live Free or Die state, we ought to let adults make decisions as to what goes in their body. I didn’t embrace legalization until more recently; my focus has been on decriminalization. But I think the next logical and natural step is a path towards legalization. And that’s the important thing: a path towards legalization. The question is are we going to be in a position where we will plan for the inevitable, which is the state of New Hampshire will eventually have legal marijuana, and how should we handle it.

Colorado also has legalized marijuana, and this year pot shops in that will see more than one billion dollars in sales. Do you see this as a potential economic boost to New Hampshire?

There are so many positive reasons for doing this. Does New Hampshire need money? In my view, we do. We spend less per capita than any state in the country. And in terms of substance abuse, addiction, education, law enforcement to put their resources in the right places. But also, what is the biggest problem facing the state of New Hampshire? How do we attract young people, millennials to New Hampshire? It means getting with some of the things we need to be doing in terms of being open and willing; we need to do lots of different things, but one of them is to be more progressive around our marijuana laws and allow people to make their own decisions.

What would you say to critics who say in the midst of an unprecedented opioid crisis, that this is just the wrong time to push legalization?

Jeff Woodburn
Credit Allegra Boverman

  I think it’s absolutely the right time. I do believe that, one, our law enforcement resources are being wasted chasing after marijuana when they should be focusing on the bigger issues. So there’s a competition for resources, but secondly, it breaks that connection between the drug dealer and the marijuana user. I think what we’ve seen in states that have gone towards legalization is they see the breakdown, a reduction in young people using. It breaks that connection; it pushes the drug dealer further away from the kids. And most importantly, and I think this is the key piece, is the number of people who have been hooked on legal painkillers who then – as we tighten up those regulations, as we should – turn to the street for heroin. So if we want to break the back of the heroin epidemic, we need to do a lot of things, but we also need money. And taxing this would bring money in for things like drug and alcohol treatment, education, and all kinds of other things.

Governor-elect Chris Sununu says he supports decriminalization, but not legalization. What do you see the realistic possibility for either decriminalization or legalization here in New Hampshire?

The people overwhelmingly want this, so I think as the Live Free or Die state, we ought to let adults make decisions as to what goes in their body.

  I think decriminalization will occur. I think the votes have been there in the House certainly and we had the votes in the Senate last time; we got tangled up in a bit of bureaucratic maneuvering. It’s an uphill battle to be sure, but I start from the idea that I’m open to anything, any idea that wants to be part of this bill, part of the solution, I’m open to: what the date is, who’s on the commission, what it looks like, but there has to be an end result. Nobody’s sitting around here in the state of New Hampshire, not anybody, that marijuana will forever be illegal here. And if they do, I want to talk to them, because I haven’t heard anybody say that. The question is if we all agree that marijuana eventually in the state of New Hampshire and the entire country will be legal, then New Hampshire should be on the forefront of defining what we want it to look like: how we’re going to regulate it, how we’re going to tax it, how we’re going to distribute it, what the process is going to look like. These are the practical questions. Putting our head in the sand or in the snow doesn’t get us any closer to an efficient way to be able to deal with this issue.

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