Just one day after the New Hampshire Senate defeated a marijuana legalization bill, the Republican governor announced that he would sign an alternative proposal to enact legalization through a system of state-run stores.
What happens next is up in the air, as earlier House-passed legislation from last session that would have created a state-run market overseen by the state Liquor Commission was also rejected by the Senate amid opposition from even many leading legalization advocates.
And Senate President Jeb Bradley (R) signaled on Thursday that he didn’t feel lawmakers should be prioritizing adult-use marijuana reform at all.
Still, with Gov. Chris Sununu (R) now voicing explicit support for having the state control cannabis sales—and the Senate having killed the more traditional legalization proposal favored by advocates this week—there may be a renewed push to advance a state-run bill.
With this right policy and framework in place, I stand ready to sign a marijuana legalization bill that puts the State of New Hampshire in the driver’s seat, focusing on harm reduction – not profits.
Read my statement:https://t.co/hX6JBGQSWQ
— Chris Sununu (@GovChrisSununu) May 12, 2023
In a statement, Sununu, who is weighing a possible run for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, acknowledged his prior position that New Hampshire isn’t ready for the reform. But regional dynamics and public opinion have forced him to reconsider.
“NH is the only state in New England where recreational use is not legal,” the governor said. “Knowing that a majority of our residents support legalization, it is reasonable to assume change is inevitable. To ignore this reality would be shortsighted and harmful.”
“That is why, with the right policy and framework in place, I stand ready to sign a legalization bill that puts the State of NH in the drivers seat, focusing on harm reduction—not profits,” he said. “Similar to our Liquor sales, this path helps to keep substances away from kids by ensuring the State of New Hampshire retains control of marketing, sales, and distribution—eliminating any need for additional taxes. As such, the bill that was defeated in NH this session was not the right path for our state.”
Sununu listed specific provisions that he feels should be incorporated into a state-run marijuana legalization bill, including local control that allows cities to ban cannabis retailers from operating in their area.
He also emphasized that, as with liquor sales under the state’s control, marijuana should not be taxed. The governor said that would also aid in curtailing the illicit market, which he said has become exceptionally “dangerous” given the prevalence of fentanyl.
“By regulating the sale of marijuana in New Hampshire, the state will ensure our citizens are in a safer place,” he said.
“This is a long-term, sustainable solution for our state. I am supportive of legalizing marijuana in the right way—with this legislature—rather than risk a poorly thought out framework that inevitably could pass under future governors or legislatures. Should the legislature pass future legalization bills without these provisions in place, they will be vetoed. This is the best path forward for our state , and I stand ready and willing to work with the legislature so that we can deliver a legalization bill that is smart, sustainable, and retains the fabric and culture of our state.”
Sununu also spoke about his revised marijuana position during an appearance on WMUR’s “CloseUp” that aired on Friday just before his official statement was released.
In an interview for CloseUp, @GovChrisSununu says if a bill that legalizes cannabis in New Hampshire under a state control model reaches his desk, he will sign it. #NHPolitics #FITN #WMUR pic.twitter.com/b198Q7IzM3
— Adam Sexton (@AdamSextonWMUR) May 12, 2023
“If and when something like this were to become legalized, I would be prepared for it,” he said. “You see the poll numbers. Obviously the vast majority of folks across the state support it. Whether we like it or not, this is probably inevitable in some way or form, so let’s make sure we design a system that focuses on harm reduction, as opposed to profits.”
House Majority Leader Jason Osborne (R), who sponsored the commercial legalization bill that the Senate rejected on Thursday, reacted to announcement by saying that the governor must have read his April op-ed where he made the “conservative case for cannabis reform,” adding that he’s “glad” to see Sununu “weigh in with his support.”
I see the Governor read my recent Union Leader article. Glad to see him weigh in with his support. https://t.co/cyeq2AhVBP
— Jason Osborne (@Osborne4NH) May 12, 2023
In an interview on Friday, Osbourne said that passing a state-run stores bill “could get done this year if the Senate were to send it back to us for a concurrence” but that waiting until 2024 would probably be too late.
Reacting to news of @GovChrisSununu‘s willingness to sign a state control cannabis legalization bill (like last year’s HB1598), Majority Leader @Osborne4NH indicates “it could get done this year” if @TheNHSenate makes the first move. #NHPolitics #WMUR pic.twitter.com/FEGTO4Npgz
— Adam Sexton (@AdamSextonWMUR) May 12, 2023
The majority leader suggested prior to the Senate vote defeating his legislation that he might be inclined to withhold that chamber’s bills if it blocked marijuana reform again, as it has in prior sessions.
Then in a tweet following the Senate action, he said that “unpopular prohibitions perpetuated by disingenuous argumentation breed contempt for our institutions and threaten the peaceful order of society.”
Unpopular prohibitions perpetuated by disingenuous argumentation breed contempt for our institutions and threaten the peaceful order of society.
— Jason Osborne (@Osborne4NH) May 12, 2023
Advocates and stakeholders have expressed concerns about the prospects of a state-controlled cannabis model, preferring a more conventional market like the one the House majority and minority leaders sponsored.
“It’s encouraging to see Gov. Sununu acknowledge that the will of New Hampshire voters will ultimately prevail, and to express some openness to cannabis legalization,” Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, told Marijuana Moment. “However, state-run stores are all but certain to be a costly boondoggle that don’t get up and running unless and until federal law changes.”
“That would simply delay a regulatory model that works—and Gov. Sununu also said he’d veto any other approach,” she said. “Advocates would love to engage with Gov. Sununu to refine language and address his concerns, but that does so in a way that will actually work. I wish he had engaged six months ago, instead of waiting until the day after the Senate killed legalization to voice tepid support.”
Matt Simon, director of public and government relations at Prime Alternative Treatment Centers of New Hampshire, pointed out that the state-run stores bill last year “barely squeaked through the House and received zero votes in the Senate.”
“Lawmakers recognized that the bill was deeply flawed on many levels, and those flaws remain present,” he said.
(Disclosure: Simon supports Marijuana Moment’s work via a monthly pledge on Patreon.)
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Whether lawmakers move to reintroduce a state-run legalization bill is yet to be seen, but Bradley, the Senate president, didn’t make it seem that he’d be open to advancing any kind of marijuana reform in a statement on Thursday.
— The NH Senate (@TheNHSenate) May 11, 2023
“Recreationalizing marijuana at this critical juncture would send a confusing message, potentially exacerbating the already perilous drug landscape and placing more lives at risk,” he said. “Now it not the appropriate time to divert our attention away from addressing the pressing challenges posed by the drug crisis.”
That said, three freshman senators previously supported the state-run stores legislation as House members last year, potentially giving the idea a path to passage through the Senate this year—though that would only be the case if Democratic senators who backed the commercial bill this week also signed on with the government plan.
Photo courtesy of Chris Wallis // Side Pocket Images.