Every time you turn around, there is another story about marijuana reform in America. Regardless of which side of the argument you stand, you consistently read new headlines to ponder regarding how cannabis is making its way into the mainstream. In many states, reform has been embraced with open arms and surprising public support. However, there are also cases where marijuana reform is being faced with strong opposition. Now, you can consider New Hampshire as one of these instances. This week, a House committee voted to approve a new marijuana legalization bill.
Due to the notably high rates of opioid overdoses in the state of New Hampshire, many are contesting marijuana legalization. The Granite State has been hit pretty hard by the ongoing epidemic, and many officials feel that pushing for legal cannabis will only make the drug problem worse.
Government Officials Pushing Back
Governor Chris Sununu is just one of many officials in New Hampshire trying to put a stop the marijuana legalization. They insist that the issue isn’t only concerning cannabis, but also opioids and other drugs.
It is understandable that people are hesitant to embrace drug reform policies in an area that has one of the highest per capita death rates due to opioid overdose in the country. Citizens and communities all over the state have suffered, while money and resources have been pouring into efforts to combat overdose deaths. Therefore, opponents of marijuana legalization are insisting it is too risky to consider easy access to any drug at this point.
Governor Sununu states,
“When we are dealing with opioids as the single biggest health crisis this state has ever had, you are going to tell me legalizing more drugs is the answer? Absolutely not.”
Many still argue that marijuana is a gateway drug and that by allowing recreational access to cannabis they will be effectively increasing the rate of opioid abuse. This is instigating a further national discussion about whether or not marijuana use is a gateway to opioid abuse.
Sununu may be a Republican, but the opposition to legalization is not exclusively partisan. In fact, both New Hampshire Senators, Senator Jeanne Shaheen, and Senator Maggie Hassan, are Democrats that express their own opposition to marijuana legalization. Sununu even has the state commission on alcohol and drug abuse against the legislation.
Additionally, plenty of residents also support the push back. Many believe New Hampshire should focus on addressing the opioid crisis before considering cannabis reform. Ronald G. Shaiko, who is studying public policy and social sciences at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, says that many residents feel that the government hasn’t responded well enough to the opioid epidemic. Therefore, most are skeptical about adding more drugs into the mix.
Marijuana Legalization VS Opioid Addiction
Proponents of cannabis reform do not dismiss the opioid crisis, but instead, argue that increasing access to marijuana could actually reduce rates of opioid overdose. This is a movement that has also begun gaining ground in recent years. State Representative Renny Cushing, who is sponsoring the legalization bill, stated:
“What we’ve come to understand is that marijuana in many instances is an exit drug, not a gateway drug.”
Legalization supports point to a 2018 study that shows an association between daily marijuana use and remaining in medication-assisted treatment (MAT) programs. Additionally, a 2014 study found that states with medical marijuana had lower death rates from opioid overdoses. Some states are now encouraging marijuana use instead of opioids or making opioid addiction a qualifying condition to receive a medical marijuana prescription.
New Bill Barely Passes
Even with a bipartisan message of caution, the new legislation to establish recreational marijuana in New Hampshire appears to be moving forward. Advocates for the new bill believe that Governor Sununu is fear mongering and using the opioid crisis to block the Democratic-controlled state legislature.
The New England area is known for embracing more liberal policies on social issues. Following the other states in the New England area, New Hampshire legalized medical marijuana in 2013. Then during Sununu’s administration, the state decriminalized marijuana possession in small amounts in 2017.
This new bill will make it legal for people over the age of 21 years old to possess, consume, buy and grow small amounts of marijuana. The bill also makes an effort to establish a commission responsible for licensing and regulating:
- Retail establishments
One state commission states that the tax revenue from a new cannabis industry could give New Hampshire between $15.3 million and $57.8 million a year. The financial benefits of cannabis reform have been a real selling point in many states. To put it in perspective, California:
- Taxes all sales of recreational and medical marijuana by 15%
- Made over $2.75 billion on recreational sales
- Added over 80,000 new jobs with cannabis sales
Needless to say, that is a lot of money. Some estimate the legal cannabis industry could grow to a whopping $25 billion in 2025.
Another huge selling point of the bill for many people is that it would expunge prior convictions for offenses relating to cannabis that are made legal under the new law.
The New Hampshire House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee approved the bill on Thursday, February 21, 2019, in a 10-9 vote, cutting it incredibly close. However, Governor Sununu has reportedly vowed to veto the bill if it reaches his desk. Meanwhile, House Speaker Steve Shurtleff believes there are enough votes in his chamber, and maybe in the Senate as well, to override a veto from the Governor.
There does not seem to be one easy answer for the cannabis debate going on in New Hampshire. For the moment, both sides seem confident in their stance. Even experts who believe cannabis may be useful in helping fight opioid addiction say that more research is necessary. Therefore, many experts insist marijuana should not be used as a substitute for other methods of MAT.
Tym Rourke, a member of the state commission on alcohol and drug abuse who oversees addiction-related programs for the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, makes a good case for proceeding with caution. Rourke points out that while marijuana could be more or less safe for the average person, that doesn’t mean it is safe for everyone. Rourke states,
“For some people, it’s unsafe. And as we are grappling with a high volume of individuals struggling with the consequences of substance misuse, do we really want to create a system that puts another substance more into the marketplace or more into their presence?”
This is a sentiment echoed by many addiction recovery advocates. There are those who believe in studying the benefits, but many holds with the idea that even if some are able to safely use cannabis, the same may not be true for many of those with substance use disorders. Therefore, as the movement for marijuana legalization continues, we should still be aware of those who could be at risk of relapse or prolonged drug use.