Finding the Center of Gravity on the New Hampshire Marijuana Debate
By Jim Monahan
When the legislative session began, none of the early predictions suggested that the marijuana debate would emerge as hotly contested an issue as it is becoming. Because medical marijuana legislation passed in 2013, a majority of the Senate said they did not want to support legalization, and above all, the Governor clearly stated she would veto either marijuana legalization or decriminalization legislation, the issue should have been somewhat stable. However a combination of factors has amplified the debate.
One meaningful aspect of this debate in the legislature is a shifting, or at least the appearance of shifting cultural attitudes from outside the State House. Helping to drive the conversation is an active and committed group of younger citizens who are using social media tools and local outreach to create a picture of a stronger level of support for marijuana legalization than actually might be the case with the general public. While this activity has an important component of citizens feeling the need to speak out and engage in the legislative process, it is also well organized and funded by out-of-state interests who use the fuel of some limited national efforts to excite a new group of younger activists. Although there is a somewhat negative tone being fostered by their advocacy (which the out-of-state marijuana policy groups should take some responsibility for and try to shift the tone to a more positive one in order to leave NH a better place when they move on), it needs to be respected and channeled in
to a larger degree of citizen participation.
Another feature of the marijuana debate in the NH House is an interesting anti-establishment streak that is showing itself. This is seen in votes that take away law enforcement’s ability to take pictures of license plates as well as emerging privacy bills that will attempt to limit the government’s ability to access personal data.
Also, it should be acknowledged that for some, the votes on marijuana are a sort of freedom vote. Knowing this bill will either get killed in the Senate or vetoed by the Governor has allowed some individuals to throw their support behind a “message vote” with the intent to voice their opinion that the current situation is not good, and something else needs to be put in its place.
This combination of influences on the marijuana debate was reflected in the Governor’s State of the State speech, when she said the following;
“Marijuana remains illegal under federal law. Our state already has one of the highest rates of marijuana use by young people in the country, and marijuana has real, negative health effects, especially on adolescents. The evidence suggests that legalizing marijuana will increase the number of minors who use this drug, will make our workforce less productive and our roads less safe, and will undermine public health. However, we do need to thoughtfully consider our current policies toward substance abuse to refocus on treatment. I do not believe that a young person with a substance problem should end up in jail, prison or with a criminal record on their first offense. That is why I would support a comprehensive review of our criminal code and our sentences to consider alternative options that will focus on treatment first.”
Generally, the Governor’s perspective seems about right. Folks want to send some type of message and there is an uneasiness that people want to address. The unknown is: What will emerge as a solution to this uneasiness? Supporters of legalization are skillful in trying to highjack this anxiety, but their extreme position will not likely meet where the center is on this issue.
The nature of the NH legislature is that it is generally able to to find a middle ground on complex issues. In 2014, this center of gravity seems to be the following:
- Marijuana is a harmful substance and NH policy should discourage, not encourage its use;
- There are developing new attitudes regarding the balance between penalties for marijuana use, and the need for education, prevention and treatment for those who suffer from the ill effects of this drug;
- Commercialization of marijuana through legalization legislation pushes the balance too far to the extreme and will create an environment where use and misuse will surge. Certainly, this increased exposure will lead to more use by children; and
- Passionate voices are being heard in the NH legislature. The answer to their calls is to find a sensible marijuana policy that will review our current penalties, recognize the need for more investments in substance abuse treatment and enact laws, if needed, to discourage the expansion of marijuana use and protect children.