By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org
CONCORD — The House Thursday approved a bill legalizing recreational cannabis that would be sold through a state retail monopoly similar to the state’s liquor business.
Like other bills legalizing the recreational use of marijuana the House has passed over the years, it faces a steep climb in the Senate, which has yet to approve a legalization bill.
House Bill 1598 passed the House by a wide margin several weeks ago, but ran into opposition before the House Ways and Means Committee where its financial assumptions were questioned, particularly its revenue estimates for the state.
Other issues also surfaced including the lack of state oversight board outside of the Liquor Commission which would regulate, buy, sell and advertise cannabis, and issues of who would produce the product on the terms outlined in the bill.
Another major concern was the fate of the state’s alternative treatment dispensaries for the medical marijuana program, whose owners do not believe they will survive if they have to compete against the state monopoly.
While the amendment approved in House Ways and Means on a 12-10 vote, addresses some of the concerns, a series of amendments were introduced Thursday to address problems in the bill that were adopted.
A proposed major change in the structure of the bill that would have used private retailers to sell the products and not the state, failed however.
Rep. Max Abramson, R-Seabrook, said the proposal before the House would be a first, seeing socialism working for the first time in history, noting everything about the proposal goes against the state GOP’s platform of privatization instead of growing government monopolies.
He also criticized the proposal’s business plan and maintains it will not produce anything close to what sponsors claim it will.
Abramson’s plan would collect state revenues through the rooms and meals tax, and that prompted sponsors of the bill to claim that would open the door “to a full-blown retail sales tax,” according to prime sponsor Rep. Daryl Abbas, R-Salem.
He and other bill sponsors claim their plan will provide property tax relief by reducing the amount of statewide education property tax needed to be raised, it would help erase the significant unfunded liability of the state retirement system and provide additional funding for mental health, and addiction prevention and treatment services.
While a number of House members said they support ending the prohibition on marijuana use and want to see the arrests stopped, they were concerned the proposal is not the best the state could do.
Rep. Dick Ames, D-Jaffrey, said while the model is based on the state liquor commission’s structure, the two would be very different as the cannabis would have to be grown in New Hampshire while the liquor commission can draw its products from around the world.
Similar models have been used in Canada in Ontario and Quebec, he said, but have not been successful.
While sponsors claim it will produce about $250 million annually for the state, others told the committee it would likely be more like one-tenth of that figure.
Rep. Timothy Lang, R-Sanbornton, said the proposal “is a win across the board for all citizens of New Hampshire.”
He, like others, said it will give the people of New Hampshire what they want, the legalization of marijuana as surrounding states have already done.
“This has been thoroughly vetted, has bipartisan support, and we can always come back and make it better,” Lang said.
The House voted 169-156 to approve the bill.
Garry Rayno may be reached at email@example.com.