Two first-term state representatives from Nashua have filed legislation to decriminalize the possession of up to 0.25 ounce of marijuana, hoping that New Hampshire might join 12 other states that have decriminalized the possession of small amounts of pot.
The bill, which is expected to be voted on by the House next month, would make the possession of such quantities a civil violation that would carry a $200 fine instead of a criminal misdemeanor that could result in up to a year in jail and fines of up to $2,500.
"I think the penalty should be reduced. Young people are experimenting, and if they make a bad choice, their conviction shouldn't come back to haunt them later in life," said Representative Andrew Edwards, a 21-year-old Nashua Democrat who cosponsored the bill. "The culture is changing, and I think the law should reflect those changes. Nonviolent drug offenders shouldn't be locked up with career criminals."
But Nashua Police Chief Donald Conley, among others, said it would be a mistake to take the sting out of the law.
"Generally speaking, I don't support it," he said of the legislation. "I think it sends the wrong message. If we say it's OK to possess a small amount of marijuana, some will think it must be OK to use it, and others will think it is OK to sell it."
On Feb. 14 , when a working group of the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee voted, 4 to 1, in favor of the lighter penalty, it was the first time in more than 20 years that a group of Granite State legislators had recommended the decriminalization of marijuana. On Feb. 19, however, the full committee voted, 13 to 5, to recommend that the House not pass the law.
The bill is scheduled to go before the full House March 5.
Representative Jeffrey Fontas, another 21-year-old Democrat from Nashua, who cosponsored the legislation, said he was not surprised the full House committee did not approve the bill. "But we did have an open discussion of the issue.
"Mistakes early in life, like a possession charge, can be devastating to the futures of our young people," said Fontas, adding that a single drug arrest can lead to the loss of a college scholarship, the ability to serve in the military, subsidized housing, and federal welfare like food stamps.
Conley said it is rare for first-time offenders to get jail time for possession of small amounts of marijuana.
"As far as someone getting arrested and their lives being ruined, I don't think that that's the case," he said. "Employers are more forgiving in this day and age, and police prosecutors frequently reduce marijuana cases down to violations. The threat of criminal prosecution gives them leverage to encourage youths to attend a drug rehabilitation program."
Hudson Police Chief Richard E. Gendron said he is also opposed to the bill.
"It's a slippery slope that won't lead us anywhere. I think it will lead to an increase in use, especially among children."
Gendron said the law would be difficult to enforce. "I don't think I want my officers to be put in the position of measuring small amounts of marijuana."
Matt Simon, executive director of the New Hampshire Coalition for Common Sense Marijuana Policy, said it was clear from the House committee's actions this month that legislators "are becoming increasingly concerned about the unintended consequences of marijuana prohibition."
"Based on this vote," he said, "it seems discussing sensible marijuana policy still makes some people uncomfortable. But people are talking, and they're realizing the consequences of penalties far exceed the offense they're supposed to correct."
Simon said 12 states - including Maine, Mississippi, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina, and Ohio - have passed laws similar to the House bill. In Massachusetts, the possession of any amount of marijuana is a criminal misdemeanor carrying a penalty of up to six months in jail and a fine of as much as $500.
Simon said: "We're expecting a lively debate" before the full House.