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House votes 162-161 to decriminalize marijuana

By Garrett Brnger
Associated Press / March 8, 2012
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CONCORD, N.H.—The New Hampshire House narrowly passed a bill to decriminalize a person's first two marijuana possessions under one-half ounce.

Republican Speaker Bill O'Brien abstained from voting, allowing the bill to squeak by Thursday with a 162-161 vote. The House voted overwhelmingly 228-89 to kill a second bill to legalize and regulate the drug.

Under the decriminalization bill, first offenses would be violations punishable by a $250 fine. The second would be $500. Subsequent offenses would be misdemeanors subject to a year of jail time and a $1,000 fine. Offenders under 21 could also be ordered to take a drug awareness program.

All offenses are currently misdemeanors punishable by up to a $2,000 fine and a year in jail.

The bill now goes to the Senate. If it passes, Gov. John Lynch has promised to veto the measure.

"Marijuana is a controlled drug that remains illegal under federal law. New Hampshire parents are working 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," Lynch spokesman Colin Manning said after the vote.

In the criminal justice committee's report to the House, Rep. Kyle Tasker, a Nottingham Republican who co-sponsored the bill, called it "a measured and calculated reduction in penalties." Surrounding states have tried similar laws with good results, he wrote in the report.

According to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, 14 other states have decriminalized marijuana, including Massachusetts, Maine and Connecticut.

Rep. Stephen Shurtleff, a former U.S. marshal, said he supported decriminalization but felt a half-ounce was too much. That amount of marijuana would be equivalent to 20-30 joints, he said.

"When someone is carrying around 20-30 joints they've crossed the line into distribution," said the Penacook Democrat.

Lynch has opposed such bills in the past. In 2009 he vetoed a bill to establish three medical marijuana dispensaries that would have distributed 2 ounces every 10 days to severely ill patients whose doctors approved the drug's use. Lynch cited concerns over cultivation and proliferation beyond the dispensaries as reasons for his opposition.

He also promised to veto another medical marijuana bill last year and a 2010 bill that would have decriminalized possession or transportation of less than one-quarter ounce of the drug. The Senate killed both before they reached his desk.

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