Proposed bill would decriminalize possession of small amount of marijuana

CONCORD (AP) – A New Hampshire lawmaker is sponsoring a bill to decriminalize possession of up to an ounce of marijuana, one year after a similar measure died in the state Senate.

Democratic Rep. Steven Lindsey’s bill is mirrored after a similar law passed by Massachusetts voters last year. It would impose a maximum fine of $100 on those caught with an ounce of marijuana or less. Minors would have to complete a drug-treatment program and community service or face an additional fine of $1,000.

Lindsey called the state’s possession law draconian at a hearing Tuesday.

Possession of an ounce or less is a misdemeanor under current law, with a possible prison sentence of up to one year. Karin Eckel, an assistant attorney general in New Hampshire, said first-time offenders rarely receive jail time.

She also said the bill could provide loopholes for drug dealers, many of whom sell marijuana in small amounts.

Other law enforcement officials echoed those concerns. State Police Maj. Russel Conte told lawmakers that marijuana use and trafficking has a devastating impact on rural communities in New Hampshire.

“This is not just a metropolitan problem,” Conte said. “This is a problem that reaches everywhere.”

>>The Pot Debate<< Conte said he has seen countless examples of young people unable to hold jobs or care for their children because of frequent marijuana use. Claire Ebel, head of the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union, countered that the same could be said of legal drugs such as alcohol, which kill hundreds of thousands each year. "There has never been a single case of marijuana being declared the cause of death of a person in the U.S.," Ebel said. Voters in Massachusetts approved a ballot question decriminalizing possession of up to an ounce of marijuana in November. The law took effect in January. Terrell Harris, spokesman for the Massachusetts public safety department, said the agency has no data on the number of citations given for possession since then. A bill to decriminalize one quarter of an ounce passed in the New Hampshire House last year. It died in the Senate after Gov. John Lynch threatened a veto.