New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu last week signed legislation to create a commission to study legalizing recreational marijuana via a plan that restricts adult-use cannabis sales to state-run retailers.

Previously opposed to legalizing recreational marijuana, Sununu changed his position earlier this year after an adult-use cannabis legalization bill failed in the New Hampshire Senate after receiving approval from the state House of Representatives. 

“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,” Sununu wrote in a statement in May. “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 driver’s seat, focusing on harm reduction  —  not profits. 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.”

Sununu said that he would sign a recreational marijuana legalization bill if it included provisions to make state-run shops the only retail outlets for adult-use cannabis purchases. New Hampshire uses a similar system for spirits sales, with the state’s 67 Liquor and Wine Outlet stores being the sole retailer of hard alcohol in the state. The governor added that he would not approve an adult-use cannabis legalization bill that did not include such a state-run model for retail sales of recreational weed.

“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,” Sununu said. “Should the legislature pass future legalization bills without these provisions in place, they will be vetoed.”

New Commission Will Study Cannabis Legalization

The measure passed last week, House Bill 611, establishes a commission to study legalizing recreational marijuana in New Hampshire. The legislation tasks the study commission with examining a number of issues and policy proposals, including how the state should approach cannabis sales and marketing, keeping marijuana products away from young people and preventing oversaturation of weed shops in local communities. The commission will also explore ways to allow local governments to ban or limit state-run cannabis retailers in their jurisdictions.

The new commission will meet through the summer and fall months to study and develop a model that allows the state to control the distribution and sales of adult-use cannabis. The commission’s findings and recommendations must be submitted in a report by December 1.

New Hampshire’s 18-member cannabis legalization study commission will include five senators, five members of the House of Representatives and representatives of the Attorney General’s Office, the Governor’s Office, the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police, the New Hampshire Bankers Association, the New Hampshire Liquor Commission, the American Civil Liberties Union, the New Hampshire Medical Society and Communities for Alcohol and Drug-Free Youth. Additionally, the commission will be required to consult with the state’s Alternative Treatment Centers, which currently dispense therapeutic medical marijuana in the state, and the New Hampshire Cannabis Association, an industry group that has advocated for legalization.

If the commission succeeds and is able to submit recommendations that result in a successful cannabis legalization bill, New Hampshire, the only state in New England that has not legalized recreational marijuana, will join the 23 states that have legalized marijuana for adult use. Democratic state Representative Wendy Thomas, a sponsor of House Bill 611 and a medical marijuana patient, said that she hopes to be appointed to the state’s cannabis legalization commission. 

“All of the states who have legalized cannabis are getting all of our money,” Thomas told New Hampshire Public Radio on Wednesday. “We’re just throwing money away that could help our state.”

In order to be approved by Sununu, the commission’s recommendations will have to be developed into a bill that can be passed by the legislature during the 2024 legislative session. Sununu has said he will not run for re-election in 2024, making next year the last opportunity for the governor to sign a legalization bill into law. 

Critics of Sununu’s plan say it will establish a state-run monopoly on cannabis sales that restricts the power of growers to set their own prices. Others say the state-run approach limits opportunities for members of communities disproportionately impacted by decades of cannabis prohibition.

House Bill 611 also includes provisions to ease restrictions on the use of medical marijuana, which was legalized in New Hampshire in 2013, by patients with chronic pain. Under the previous regulations, patients could only receive a recommendation to use medical cannabis for chronic pain if they had first tried other options without success. The new law eliminates that restriction, effective on October 8, and allows patients to receive a medical marijuana recommendation without trying other, potentially more dangerous, options such as opioids.

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