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NH House approves decriminalizing marijuana

By Norma Love
Associated Press Writer / March 10, 2010

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CONCORD, N.H.—New Hampshire's House voted Wednesday to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana by adults, but the victory was followed immediately by the governor's pledge to veto the bill.

The House voted 214-137 to send a bill to the Senate to allow adults to possess one-quarter ounce or less of the substance. It also would decriminalize transporting less than one-quarter ounce of the drug.

Anyone under age 18 caught with one-quarter ounce or less would be subject to a $200 fine. The youth's parents would be notified and he or she would have to complete a drug awareness program and community service within one year of the violation. Failing to comply would result in a $1,000 fine.

Wednesday's vote comes seven months after Gov. John Lynch vetoed legalizing medical use of the drug. Lynch also opposes the new House bill, and immediately after the House vote said he would veto it.

"Marijuana is a controlled drug that remains illegal under federal law. I share the law enforcement community's concerns about proliferation of this drug," Lynch said. "In addition, New Hampshire parents are struggling to keep their kids away from marijuana and other drugs. We should not make the jobs of parents -- or law enforcement -- harder by sending a false message that some marijuana use is acceptable."

Opponents agreed the bill would send a bad message to New Hampshire citizens, particularly youth. They said marijuana is addictive and can lead to abusing other drugs.

State Rep. William Butynski, D-Hinsdale, said comparisons shouldn't be made with the bill approved last year to legalize marijuana for medicinal purposes. That bill required a doctor's oversight and created centers to dispense the drug.

"There are no controls in this bill," he said.

He said prosecutors couldn't plea bargain because the penalty would be a violation.

Rep. Joel Winters, D-Manchester, said that was the whole point of the bill.

"Prosecutors aren't going to be able to threaten jail time for small amounts of marijuana," he said.

Winters noted the bill calls for parents to be notified if police catch minors with the drug.

"Parents will tell you they'd rather deal with this over the kitchen table than in a courtroom," Winters said.

Decriminalizing marijuana has been debated for years but gained some steam in the Legislature after Democrats took control in 2006.

The House passed a bill in 2008 that made possession of up to one-quarter ounce of marijuana punishable by a $200 fine instead of a misdemeanor that could have resulted in a sentence of up to a year in jail and fines up to $2,000. The bill did not make an exception for minors. The Senate killed it after Lynch said he would veto it for sending the wrong message to youth.

Last year, the House killed a decriminalization bill and instead approved legislation to narrow the focus to use by severely ill people. That bill would have established three nonprofit "compassion centers" to dispense 2 ounces of marijuana every 10 days to severely ill people whose doctors approved the drug's use. The state would have licensed the centers and issued identification cards to their staff, approved patients and caregivers.

In vetoing the bill, Lynch cited concerns over distribution and cultivation and the potential for abuse. He also said the bill did not clearly restrict marijuana use to people suffering severe pain, seizures of nausea.

The House overrode the veto, but the Senate fell two votes short and the bill died.

Bill supporters vowed to bring it back in 2011. In the meantime, state Rep. Steven Lindsey, a Keene Democrat, proposed the pending decriminalization measure.

Fourteen states have medical marijuana laws and 13 have decriminalization laws, according to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.