Lawmakers start to get traction on medicinal marijuana

Jeff Fontas, a former state representative from Nashua, got involved in changing marijuana policy last year after listening to people testify about their experiences before the Criminal Justice and Safety Committee.

“It seemed that there was a rational way to go about policy change, specifically for marijuana,” Fontas said. “I wanted to bring something rational and palatable” to the lawmakers and the public, he said, and not something radical or unreasonable.

He, along with former Nashua state Rep. Andrew Edwards, sponsored HB 774 in 2007, which focused on medical marijuana. While it was defeated, the debate made a difference, the pair agreed.

The main argument he heard against it, Fontas said, was ” ‘Let’s think about the children, what impact will this have on them?’ ”

“Well, I couldn’t agree more – but for different reasons. I’ve seen peers caught up in the system because of one-time violations, in their late teens/early 20s,” he said. “It’s hurting them going forward in ways a lot of people didn’t realize, and I wanted to bring these issues to light.”

Fontas felt there was some success in bringing the bill forward, “success that came from discussions that took place in committees, on the chamber floor and in the newspapers,” he said. “The public response was more positive than I expected.”

It was this refreshing reaction from the public that Fontas is most proud of.

“It was a lot more civil than I expected,” he said. “Our approach made a difference, and that changed some opinions.”

Edwards, the other lawmaker involved in the bill, said it was nice to debate the issue and not bear the brunt of personal attacks.

“We found that it isn’t that people don’t support our position, it’s just that no one wants the onus of being the one who passes it,” he said. “Even senators who argued against us told us they thought we made a good case.”

In November, Massachusetts voted via a ballot initiative to downgrade the penalty for possession of less than an ounce of marijuana to be punishable by a civil fine of $100. Edwards believes that if New Hampshire had ballot initiatives, the marijuana policy change would pass “no question.”

A growing advocate

One group willing to advocate and lobby for the reform of the state’s marijuana laws was the NH Coalition for Common Sense Marijuana Policy.

Matt Simon, 32, the group’s executive director, looks more like a college professor than an advocate for drug-law reform.

Well dressed, stately and ready with facts, Simon is the face of an organization hoping to bring some change to the Granite State’s current policies surrounding marijuana use, possession and consequences.

While his organization enjoyed the surprising – and temporary – victory of state bill HB 1623, they are now focusing their efforts in a new direction.

HB 1623 set out to reduce penalties for possessing less than a quarter-ounce of marijuana from a class A misdemeanor, which is punishable by a fine of up to $2,000 or up to a year in jail to a violation punishable by a $200 fine.

“This isn’t about legalization,” Simon said. “It’s about the punishment fitting the crime.”

The bill passed the New Hampshire House by a 193-141 margin, but was then killed by the Senate.

With that small victory, and a majority of state residents being polled falling on the side of decriminalization of marijuana, NH Common Sense will be moving forward on the issue by focusing on the medical marijuana angle with a new bill, HB 648.

New Hampshire would become the 14th state since 1996 to pass legislation protecting medical marijuana patients, joining Alaska, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Michigan, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington and Simon hopes we are next. (See sidebar for map of states.)

Simon pointed out these states stipulate illnesses that qualify for medical marijuana use, and how the patient will get it. None allow “cannabis clubs,” where patients can get together and smoke.

Simon said “it’s about sovereignty over one’s own body; private use versus hurting others.”

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Of course, not everyone is ready to legalize marijuana. Local law enforcement are opposed to legalization for a number of reasons.

Lt. Jeff Bukunt, head of the Youth Services Division of Nashua police, is opposed to legalization.

“Alaska tried decriminalizing it for adults from 1978 to 1990,” he said, “and the use of marijuana by juveniles increased dramatically. In a national household survey in 1985, twice as many (Alaskan youth) used marijuana compared to the rest of country.”

Bukunt warns that “legalization in any form leads to seepage into youth and creates a use pattern.”

Some officers feel that society is too accepting of marijuana already and suggest increasing funds for rehabilitation and education. Prevention starts at home, they say, and legalizing any drug will not help that effort.

Even if marijuana were to be legalized in some form, there are tangible issues that need to be considered.

Police have concerns that intoxication can’t be measured for marijuana like it can for alcohol. Four drinks can lead to a blood alcohol level of 0.08, the legal threshold for impairment.

There’s no equivalent way to quickly measure THC levels.

Still, there’s another bill proposed this year that would allow police to take a blood or urine sample from a driver if he or she was suspected of driving while drugged.

House Bill 575 would allow officers who suspect drugged driving to compel a motorist to submit to a blood or urine test for metabolites of Class I drugs. Marijuana can remain in a user’s system for weeks and heroin can stay there for days.

Simon’s group will fight that bill along with a similar bill, HB 665, which would broaden what is defined as drugged driving to include not only “controlled drugs” but any illegal, chemical substance either natural or man-made and any metabolites that remained in the blood system of a motorists.

On the other end of the spectrum, a bill (HB 555) has been sponsored that mirror’s Massachusetts’s law, which makes it a violation and $100 fine for, someone caught with less than an ounce of marijuana.

So of the four bills facing Legislature this session, two would soften marijuana laws in the state and two would give law enforcement more teeth.

Simon maintains public opinion has shifted and so should the attitudes of politicians.

“The issue of marijuana policy won’t hurt politicians,” he said.

Simon quotes the phrase “voodoo pharmacology” to describe the hordes of lobbyists, pharmaceutical companies and politicians who seek to keep some drugs legal and some illegal. “The American College of Physicians and the AMA both endorse the use of medical marijuana,” Simon said. “For some, it’s the only thing that can help the pain, nausea and appetite loss brought on by the suffering of and/or treatment of serious illness or disease.”

“Don’t use our tax money to spread disinformation,” he said. “The ends don’t justify the means.”