- Associated Press - Thursday, April 21, 2016

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) - Senate lawmakers on Thursday rejected an effort to remove criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of pot, leaving New Hampshire as the only New England state without some form of marijuana decriminalization.

“We are in a war and the last thing we need is to tell our citizens that it’s OK to use a little marijuana or any other illegal substance,” Republican Sen. Gary Daniels said during the Senate’s debate.

This isn’t the first time decriminalization advocates have been disappointed. The House has passed decriminalization measures several times in recent years, only to see it routinely rejected by the upper chamber. The Senate’s 14-10 vote didn’t fall neatly along party lines.

Republican Rep. Adam Schroadter, the bill’s prime sponsor, said the Senate’s vote demonstrates a “disconnect” between lawmakers’ views and what voters want. Polling consistently shows a majority of New Hampshire residents support legalizing marijuana - a step that goes even further than decriminalization.

The bill would have reduced possession of one-half ounce of marijuana or less to a violation, meaning it would carry a fine but not appear on a person’s criminal record. It also would have reduced penalties for possessing larger amounts of the drug. Supporters of such a change say marijuana usage shouldn’t permanently mar someone’s record and suggest money spent on marijuana prosecutions could be better spent fighting the state’s opioid crisis. A 2013 study from the American Civil Liberties Union found the state spent $6.5 million in 2010 enforcing marijuana laws.

But opponents of decriminalization say changing state policy would send the wrong message as the state battles an opioid crisis. More than 400 people died from drug overdoses in New Hampshire last year.

Republican Sen. John Reagan, a strong advocate of loosening marijuana laws, said it’s a shame that people are facing criminal charges for a substance that grows naturally.

“We’re obsessed with punishing people because somebody in the government … decided that marijuana was bad,” Reagan said.

It was unclear whether Gov. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat, would have signed a decriminalization bill. New Hampshire legalized medical marijuana several years ago, and several dispensaries are in the process of opening.

The state Supreme Court recently ruled qualifying patients in New Hampshire can legally buy marijuana in other states before the dispensaries are open.

Last month, a New Hampshire man died while behind bars because he couldn’t pay bail on a marijuana possession charge.


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