On July 18, 2017, New Hampshire became the last of the New England states to decriminalize recreational marijuana.
The new law, HB 640, had bipartisan sponsorship and bipartisan support. It will take effect in 60 days. However, the law seems to be confusing, and though it is a baby step toward it, the law does not legalize the possession of marijuana. Federal laws against marijuana are still significant barriers toward opening up marijuana markets.
A Confusing Law
Justin Strekal, NORML Political Director, commented on their blog after the decision:
“Soon, throughout New England, individuals will be able to freely travel without the threat of jail time for possession of marijuana.”
Tuftonboro Police Chief Andrew Shagoury, president of the New Hamphire Association of Chiefs of Police (NHACOP), said in an interview for IVN that 60 days may not be a practical rollout.
“This is a major change in the way we do business, we are still trying to understand it,” he said.
Shagoury added that the police in New Hampshire have reached out to the attorney general and asked for a clarification of the law. Systems have to be changed, he said, and some of the law is contradictory or unclear.
This is a major change in the way we do business, we are still trying to understand it.Andrew Shagoury, Tuftonboro Police Chief
According to Chief Shagoury, some of the stipulations in the law are bizarre and against generally accepted standards, like Section VI (a), which bars arrests for marijuana crimes.
“In New Hampshire, we can arrest for any violation,” he explained. “It is the only law in the book that says we can’t arrest if we need to. It would have been simple if they would have just changed the penalty, but they changed a lot of the processes.”
In Section VIII(a), the new law restricts public release of identifying information, which would normally be considered public:
“VIII.(a) No record that includes personally identifiable information resulting from a violation of this section shall be made accessible to the public, federal agencies, or agencies from other states or countries.”
However, in Section V(a), the law requires authorities to depend on other states to share identifying information:
“…however, any person convicted based upon a complaint which alleged that the person had 3 or more prior convictions for violations of paragraph II, III or IV, or under reasonably equivalent offenses in an out-of-state jurisdiction since the effective date of this paragraph, within a 3-year period preceding the fourth offense shall be guilty of a class B misdemeanor.”
Shagoury said that pre-HB 640, they shared identifying information with other states.
Also, he said that sometimes people don’t understand legal, versus decriminalization. It is still a violation to posses marijuana in New Hampshire. Carrying less than 3/4 of an ounce is a $100 mail-in fine. Carrying more than 3/4 of an ounce, making marijuana available to minors, and accumulating 3 violations within 3 years — from anywhere in the country — is a misdemeanor.
Progress Toward Legalization?
New Hampshire is the 22nd state to decriminalize marijuana.
Why the sudden softening on a drug that has been considered a Schedule 1 narcotic, and illegal since 1937?
“People are realizing that there is no reason to punish responsible adults for using a substance that is safer than alcohol,” said Morgan Fox of the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) in an interview. “A majority of Americans think that marijuana should be legal and regulated similarly to alcohol.”
“Now that people are seeing the successful implementation of regulated markets in states like Colorado, they are more likely to support doing so in their own states,” said Fox. “Lawmakers are seeing this too, and are much more willing to introduce legalization bills than they have been in years past.”
People are realizing that there is no reason to punish responsible adults for using a substance that is safer than alcohol.Morgan Fox, Marijuana Policy Project
Pockets of the nation like the North East, and the West Coast, have led the way.
“Those were places with strong initial support for legalization and established grassroots political activists working on the issue, so they became the places that larger policy reform groups focused on,” Fox explained. The New Hampshire House has been proposing more lenient marijuana laws since 2008.
HB 640 might be a step toward legalization. According to Chief Shagoury, New Hampshire will have the results of a marijuana legalization and taxation study commission by December 2018.
Fox said that misinformation has been the biggest barrier to changing marijuana laws:
“People have been getting incorrect information about the relative harms of marijuana for decades, and a negative stigma still exists among certain demographic groups. In addition, law enforcement and addiction treatment groups lobby heavily against reform, given that both types of organizations have a financial stake in keeping marijuana illegal.”
Federal Laws Must Change
The NHACOP’s official stance is to oppose HB 640. The conflict between federal and state laws put officers’ careers at risk, said Shagoury:
“The US Supreme Court has ruled on the conflict between the laws in Gonzales v Raich. While we do not enforce federal law, state legalization has raised issues with legal liability for law enforcement officers due to the conflict and some state law sections.”
“It is not legal to use bank accounts for marijuana businesses,” said Sagoury. “The large amounts of cash and value of the products has led to robberies, assaults, and murders.”
Looking to the future, Morgan Fox said:
“We hope to continue changing state laws until Congress is forced to address this issue and takes marijuana off the schedule of the Controlled Substances Act, instead treating it like alcohol and having it be controlled at the federal level by an agency similar to the ATF.”
Federal law changes are key to Chief Shagoury as well. He said that the only way the NHACOP might embrace legalization is if the law is changed on the federal level:
“As for factors that might lead to NHACOP supporting legalization. At this moment the only thing I could imagine that might have us change our position is if federal law is changed. While we have traditionally opposed it, it could change with new scientific studies and changes in federal law.”
Fox and Shagoury echo federal Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ comments on marijuana legalization.
“The U.S. Congress made the possession of marijuana in every state — and the distribution — an illegal act. If that’s something that’s not desired any longer, Congress should pass a law to change the rule,” said Sessions.