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New Hampshire

Bill to decrease pot fines is stalled

Little support from Senate, governor

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Tom Long
Globe Correspondent / March 27, 2008

When the New Hampshire House of Representatives voted to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana, it was the first time the legislative body approved reducing the penalty for having pot.

But the bill is unlikely to become law. It appears to have little support in the Senate, and Governor John Lynch has said he'd veto the bill if it reaches his desk because it sends the wrong message to the state's young people about the dangers of drugs.

"Our representatives in the House did the right thing for New Hampshire - and especially for New Hampshire's young people," Matt Simon, executive director of the New Hampshire Coalition for Common Sense Marijuana Policy, said last week. "It's time for the Senate to finish the work we've started here and bring some sanity to our marijuana sentencing policies."

The bill would make the possession of a quarter of an ounce or less of marijuana a civil violation that would carry a maximum $200 fine, instead of a criminal misdemeanor that may result in up to a year in jail and fines of up to $2,500.

Though the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee recommended against passage of the law, the bill passed the full House, 193 to 141, on March 18.

In Massachusetts, two bills are before the Legislature that would decriminalize the possession of less than an ounce of marijuana, and another bill would allow the drug to be used for medical reasons.

Also, Representative Barney Frank said last week that he intends to file a bill in the US House to legalize "small amounts" of marijuana.

Nobody was more surprised when the New Hampshire House passed the bill than Jeffrey Fontas, the 21-year-old Democrat from Nashua who cosponsored the legislation.

"Many people told us that it wouldn't pass, but it did. I think it was because of the way we framed the argument. Mistakes early in life, like a possession charge, can be devastating to the futures of our young people," he said, adding that a single drug arrest can lead to the loss of a college scholarship, the ability to serve in the military, and the chance to qualify for subsidized housing and food stamps.

Representative David Welch, a Republican from Kingston and a member of the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee who voted in favor of the bill, said it's a generational issue.

"I think if all the House members were under 30, it would be a slam dunk."

Welch, who is serving his eleventh term in the House, said he has never used drugs, "except aspirin," and feels there are a lot more dangerous products on the market: alcohol and cigarettes, for instance.

"I think alcohol abuse does a lot more damage. . . . Not only that, but we tax alcohol. It's not as if it's a large amount of marijuana we're talking about here. It's only enough to make seven or eight cigarettes," he said. "People - young people in particular - do stupid things, and I don't think they should be penalized for life."

Fontas said he is not disheartened by a lack of support for the bill in the Senate.

"The so-called experts said the bill didn't have a chance in the House, but many members voted for it after they heard what we had to say. Who knows what might happen in the Senate if we have another open discussion of the issue?"

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