NH considers reducing first-time drug offenses from felonies to misdemeanors

Measure aims to lower first-time charges and address institutionalized racism

A Republican-sponsored bill that aims to lower first-time drug charges from felonies to misdemeanors that advocates say would decrease institutionalized racism in the criminal justice system is facing push back from New Hampshire police.

At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in April, 51 people signed up in support of House Bill 473, which would reclassify first-time drug offenses that are currently treated as felonies, to misdemeanors. Eighteen signed up against the bill.

The reclassification of first-time drug crimes would be consistent with the state’s broader efforts to reduce stigma around drug treatment and give people a path to a better life, said Rep. Erica Layon, a Derry Republican.

This proposal would not affect charges for possession of small amounts of marijuana, which New Hampshire already decriminalized, but the change would be significant for possession of drugs like heroin, fentanyl, cocaine and methamphetamine.

“When you’re a felon, it’s hard to get a home, it’s hard to rent, it’s hard to do so many things when you have a felony conviction on your record,” Layon said. “If we want people to be able to re-enter society after a mistake, this bill is a good opportunity.”

Under current New Hampshire law, first-time possession of certain amounts of drugs can be a felony, punishable by up to seven years in prison and a fine of $25,000. In 2021, there were 3,592 total drug arrests and over 87% of those arrests were for possession.

Lily Jackson, campaign manager for American Civil Liberties Union-NH, called on lawmakers to approve the legislation, saying that the harsher criminal sentences have not deterred drug-related crimes or drug use in the state as lawmakers had hoped. Instead, it’s perpetuated racial biases against Black and Hispanic individuals, specifically men. Though Black people represent just 1.8% of New Hampshire’s population, they make up 5.7 percent of all drug arrests in the past five years.

“Reclassifying drug possession as a misdemeanor offense provides an opportunity to begin to address the disproportionate harms that New Hampshire’s criminal justice system has on Black and Brown people,” Jackson said.

Additionally, a felony drug conviction not only can bring years of incarceration but also makes it more difficult for individuals to secure safe housing, meaningful education and gainful employment once released, according to the ACLU. These obstacles only increase the likelihood that individuals will reenter the criminal justice system.

However, the bill faces opposition from law enforcement.

“This would give drug traffickers, who are selling illicit drugs that are contributing to the carnage here in the Granite State with respect to drug overdoses and drug overdose fatalities, a free pass; a misdemeanor pass,” said Bedford Police Chief John Bryfonski on behalf of the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police where he acts as president.

If the bill becomes law, the changes would take effect Jan. 1.

This article is being shared by partners in the Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.

Categories: Government, Law, News