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Cannabis in NH
'Status Quo Can't Continue': Bipartisan Coalition Pushes for Legal Cannabis

A bipartisan coalition is expected to move forward with a marijuana legalization bill in the N.H. House of Representatives, in hopes of ending the Granite State’s status as an island of recreational cannabis prohibition, surrounded by places that have legalized the drug.

“It’s obviously come to a point where something has to be done,” said Ross Connolly, deputy state director for Americans for Prosperity (AFP), a conservative political advocacy group. “The status quo can’t continue.”

The bill — which likely will be introduced early next year — will include a private marketplace and low tax rate that are “tremendously different” from the past efforts, according to former state Rep. Timothy T. Egan, D-Sugar Hill, who chaired the House Democratic Cannabis Caucus until losing re-election earlier this month.

Although Egan lost his seat, he’s still working on legalization in his new role as inaugural chair of the advisory board for the N.H. Cannabis Association, a Manchester-based industry group. The bill will be sponsored by representatives from both sides of the aisle, Egan noted.

The coalition is “conferring” with other lawmakers, Egan said, including Rep. Daniel Eaton, D-Stoddard, who has already taken steps toward introducing a legalization bill.

Over the past few years, efforts to legalize recreational marijuana have passed the House, but died in the Senate, including two bills earlier this year. The latest legalization effort failed 15-9, with three Democratic senators joining all but two Republicans in voting against that bill.

As with the last legislative session, Republicans will have a 14-10 majority in the Senate in the next two years. However, the election earlier this month caused some shake-ups, and legalization is not a strictly partisan issue, advocates say.

For example, Democrat Kevin Cavanaugh, of Manchester, who voted against legalization did not seek re-election to the Senate. He was replaced by Republican Keith Murphy who formerly voted to legalize cannabis as a member of the House. With changes like that, advocates are more cautiously optimistic than with prior legislation about New Hampshire legalizing marijuana.

“It’s not a slam dunk, but it’s better than it’s been before,” said Karen O’Keefe, director of state policies for the Marijuana Policy Project, a national group that advocates for cannabis reform, including legalization. “It’s the perfect issue to actually get something positive done with bipartisan agreement — which can be rare.”

Popular with the public

A February 2022 poll from the University of New Hampshire found that 74 percent of Granite Staters support marijuana legalization, and only 15 percent are opposed. Stil, Gov. Chris Sununu, a Republican, has publicly opposed legalization. As recently as a Nov. 1 debate, he said “now is not the time” to legalize cannabis.

The Granite State did decriminalize cannabis in 2017, meaning possession of up to 3/4 of an ounce can result in a civil violation and a fine, similar to a traffic ticket, while larger quantities still carry criminal charges. Medical marijuana has been legal in the state since 2013.

But, bordering states of Vermont, Massachusetts and Maine, as well as Canada, all allow for adult-use and retail sales, driving New Hampshire residents seeking legal cannabis out-of-state to buy it. Advocates say this not only takes away from state revenue, but also puts New Hampshire in the position of enforcing the prohibition of marijuana, when across state lines people are building lucrative businesses in the cannabis industry.

“Our message is accepting reality,” Connolly, of AFP, said. “We’re missing out on a big opportunity here where we take our ‘live free or die’ state values and apply them to a retail market.”

The coalition that helped draft the new legislation includes AFP, the New Hampshire chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Marijuana Policy Project, the New Hampshire Cannabis Association and Prime Alternative Treatment Centers of N.H., a medical cannabis provider in the state.

If adopted, the law would create a private marketplace for cannabis sales and focus on low taxation. Marijuana would be taxed at the current meals-and-rooms tax rate of 8.5 percent, with proceeds going toward unmet pension obligations across the state and drug education and prevention, according to Egan.

He added that, while it would be a statewide legalization, towns would be able to opt out of participating in the cannabis industry. Municipalities could vote against having any businesses associated with the cannabis industry, Egan said.

That’s different from neighboring Vermont, which legalized the sale of adult-use cannabis in 2020, where towns had to vote to opt-in to the industry. Brattleboro was one of the communities to allow retail cannabis sales, with one shop open so far.

Connolly said the New Hampshire legislation would allow for a “very level playing field that isn’t hindered by over-regulation.”

Unlike a bill that was killed in the Senate earlier this year, the current legislation does not take a state-run approach to cannabis sales. That bill would have given the N.H. Liquor Commission, which runs liquor stores statewide, authority over marijuana sales as well.

Any formal involvement of a state in the industry is a “poison pill,” said O’Keefe, due to federal prohibition on cannabis. A state government, she said, is unlikely to directly run an industry that is federally illegal. She points out that Utah initially planned for a state-run marketplace for marijuana, but later needed to change to a private marketplace.

“We certainly don’t think state-run stores are feasible given federal laws,” she said.

One notable component missing from the draft legislation, Egan said, is any talk of expungement for people who have marijuana-related charges on their criminal records.

Expungement is a process by which a criminal conviction is entirely removed from a person’s record. Last month, President Joe Biden announced federal pardons for simple marijuana possession, but that does not affect state-level convictions.

Egan said that’s a critical aspect of any legalization bill, but will require participation and advice from law enforcement and the criminal justice system. Those institutions have been hesitant to get involved before a bill is introduced, according to Egan.

“Expungement will take a little more time, patience and involvement of [more people] than just this coalition,” Egan said.

But for the ACLU, expungement is of paramount importance. In order to be equitable, expungement must be free and automatic, said Frank Knaack, policy director of the New Hampshire chapter of the ACLU.

In 2020, data from the ACLU show Black people in New Hampshire were 4.8 times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession than white people — a racial disparity that has increased 46 percent since 2010.

“We see the need to legalize adult-use through two lenses: harm reduction and racial justice ...” said Knaack. “We are way behind the times continuing to criminalize people for something that is legal in neighboring states.”

To overcome a gubernatorial veto, the coalition would need 16 senators to vote for the bill, according to Matt Simon, director of public and government relations for Prime Alternative Treatment Centers of N.H. and longtime advocate for legalization.

“We’ve always been a few votes short,” he said.

Risk, but not benefit

While there’s no formal data on how often Granite Staters drive over the borders to purchase legal cannabis, there’s lots of anecdotal evidence that New Hampshire residents purchase legal pot and presumably take it to their homes to consume (despite that being illegal), advocates said. That’s not only an economic drain on the state — it also shows that any complications associated with marijuana use are already here, they added.

“Marijuana is not harmless. There are harms,” Simon said. “But are those harms best dealt with by prohibition and an illicit market run by felons, or by a regulated system?”

Connolly agreed, pointing out that New Hampshire is also missing out on tax revenue.

“The individuals who want to use it are using and, and New Hampshire isn’t getting any of the benefits. That’s the real argument we’re making,” he said.

Sununu says the timing is not right because of the ongoing opioid epidemic in the state. Yet research has shown that legalized marijuana is linked with lower opioid overdose rates and the idea of cannabis as a “gateway drug” is outdated, according to Dr. Joe Hannon, a former Republican state representative from Lee who served on the N.H. Commission to Study the Legalization and Taxation of Marijuana in 2017 and 2018.

With just 24 state senators, the body’s small size means that’s where people often focus lobbying efforts, since just a few votes can make a difference between a bill passing or being killed, Simon said. In addition, law enforcement, which generally has been opposed to past legalization efforts, holds a lot of sway in the Senate, Knaack added.

“This highlights the enormous power that law enforcement has in their ability to control legislative outcomes in Concord ...” Knaack said.

In the past, police chiefs have spoken out against legalization, citing issues including the opioid epidemic, concerns about children having access to cannabis, and lack of testing for impaired drivers.

But to Knaack, those are all concerns that the 21 states that have already legalized cannabis have found ways to address.

“What’s almost as concerning as police leveraging that kind of power to kill [legislation] supported by a broad cross-section of Granite Staters, is that they’re doing so by pushing misinformation on these issues,” Knaack said.

Hannon said some objections from Sununu and the Senate are true concerns, and yet “can’t be the reason we don’t legalize.” While there’s currently no breath test that can detect marijuana in impaired drivers, he pointed out that private industry is racing to develop a test similar to a breathalyzer for alcohol.

Hannon previously was concerned about rising accidental marijuana consumption by children in states that have legalized it. Yet, after speaking with officials in those states he realized that most children don’t have lasting effects and the cases, though rising, remain rare.

On average, New Hampshire’s lawmakers also are among the oldest state legislators in the country. That likely plays a role in the hesitation to pass legalization, according to Hannon, particularly in the Senate, which tends to have older members — a demographic that data show is less likely to support legalization.

“There’s a lot of misconceptions still, that ‘reefer madness’ out there,” he said. “That’s why people won’t vote for legalization. They were raised, my generation and people older than us, to believe that it’s evil and will ruin your life.”

Yet Hannon, 50, who has been in recovery from a substance-use disorder for more than 35 years, said the real harm is the hold that the war on drugs still has over lawmakers.

“This is not just the idea of personal choice and freedom,” he said. “There’s a greater societal impact we have to address, of this harmful system we have had for too long ... We’re going to look back and say, ‘Why did we do this?’ ”

For Egan, legalization is a chance for New Hampshire to benefit from a social change that seems increasingly inevitable.

“I want to sit down and say, ‘How do we find a solution that fits everyone, and that benefits our state?’ It’s time to move on and move forward,” he said. “At some point, we will begin to see the harm of our inaction, and it’s going to be economics.”

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State Proposes $20M Lifeline

A day after the midterm elections, Lebanon Mayor Tim McNamara penned a letter to Gov. Chris Sununu outlining an urgent situation.

New Hampshire’s rental relief program was ending due to a lack of federal funding, McNamara wrote, and some of the recipients were about to lose their housing. Many of the residents who were receiving rental assistance had been boarded in hotels in stays paid for by the rental relief program. Now, those residents were likely to be kicked out, he wrote.

“These individuals are understandably anxious about where they will go next given the lack of available options,” McNamara wrote in the Nov. 9 letter reviewed by the Bulletin.

The situation would have financial ramifications for cities as well, McNamara added. If no action were taken, the cities would be required by state law to find funding to address residents’ housing needs themselves.

“Municipalities will quickly discover that their local welfare budgets are insufficient to meet this need,” McNamara wrote.

Last week, the state responded. New Hampshire officials will devote $20 million in federal COVID relief money to help the hundreds of people without housing to stay in hotels through the winter, after the Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee approved the $20 million request Friday. The spending was approved by the Executive Council Tuesday.

The $20 million passed by the Fiscal Committee will be available to any hotel resident that had applied for rental relief before Oct. 21, the day the state froze new applications. Those who are staying in hotels but did not have an application in the pipeline before Oct. 21 will not be eligible, according to Chase Hagaman, deputy director of the Governor’s Office for Rental Relief and Recovery.

According to the state, the $20 million will fund tenants’ hotel stays until June for tenants with children, and until April for individuals and tenants without children. The state will “encourage” those hotels to use the extended aid to keep housing the families through the winter, according to the proposal sent to the committee.

It is unclear how many individuals would benefit. More than 700 people who are receiving rental assistance were estimated to be staying in hotels in September due to a lack of available housing, according to a report from the Granite State News Collaborative. The state has not released exact totals for November.

And the money approved will be limited to people living in hotels; it will not help tenants who are receiving the rental assistance but living in rental housing. New Hampshire’s rental assistance program is set to end Dec. 29, according to Sununu.

“It looks like that $20 million is going to be a big help,” said Elliott Berry, the recently-retired Housing Project Director for New Hampshire Legal Assistance, in an interview. “But it doesn’t do much for the many, many people who can’t afford the rent that the emergency room rental assistance program has been paying on their behalf.”

But advocates for housing say that the $20 million is nonetheless a useful move.

“We are pleased that (the Fiscal Committee) approved additional (American Rescue Plan Act) funds to keep people who are currently residing in hotels and motels housed through the cold winter months and we urge the Executive Council to support this time sensitive issue as well,” said Housing Action New Hampshire, a nonprofit organization, in a statement Friday.

The approval comes as New Hampshire’s rental market could be heading into further turmoil.

The state announced a likely end to its rental assistance program last month, following a pullback in funding to the state from the U.S. Treasury Department in October. That month, New Hampshire Housing, the state agency that distributes the housing assistance funds, announced that it was freezing the application process for rental relief, citing the apparent lack of continued federal funding.

After the lapse in funding, affordable housing groups and legal organizations pressed Sununu and Taylor Caswell, director of the Governor’s Office for Emergency Relief and Recovery (GOFERR), to propose a transition plan to help the individuals who were relying on the rental relief.

The pressure started with a Nov. 1 letter to Sununu from a coalition of organizations across the state, including representatives for Housing Action, Families in Transition, ABLE NH, Waypoint, and a number of mayors and selectboard members.

The organizers said that of all the rental aid recipients who were about to lose their support, those who were living in hotels due to a lack of options would suffer the most acutely – and should be prioritized.

“Households dealing with economic hardship, medical crises, substance use disorders, or a history of domestic violence are facing an extremely tight rental market, with high monthly costs, long waitlists and very few options,” the letter noted. Providing additional funding through the winter would allow them more time to figure out those options while avoiding difficulties during winter, the advocates noted.

A week later, McNamara, the Lebanon mayor, sent his letter addressing the end of funding for those living in hotels, claiming that many hotels were already asking people on the program to leave. Should the families lose housing, the city would be obligated to provide welfare services under RSA 165, McNamara noted.

He also pushed to secure a meeting between Caswell and other New Hampshire mayors.

In an interview, Hagaman noted other services available to people in hotels. On Friday, the Fiscal Committee also approved $3.3 million in the state’s emergency rental assistance money to go toward wraparound services and case managers to find housing for displaced tenants, as well as to help incentivize landlords to rent to lower-income tenants.

“I don’t think every family utilizes those services, but they’re there for those who need them who want them,” Hagaman said.

Estimating exactly how many people are currently living in hotels is difficult given the fluctuations in peoples’ situations, Hagaman said. But he said $20 million should cover the families whose applications are currently in line to be processed. And he said the state deliberately chose a June cutoff date for families with children to be able to keep their children in their local school district through the school year, and an April cutoff date for people without children to get through the winter.

The $20 million hotel assistance money is not coming out of the state’s remaining federal emergency rental assistance money, which is running low. Rather, the funds will come out of the state’s remaining allocation of ARPA, which are not required to be used for housing, according to Hagaman.

Absent a funding reversal from the Treasury, the state is limited in how much it can do, Hagaman said.

“It’s basically looking at the funding that we currently have and seeing how far it can go,” he said.

After two years of expenditures, the state currently has around $100 million left of the original $1.2 billion allocation under ARPA, Hagaman said. “That’s the downside with getting toward the end of available funding: Now you’re figuring out what the priorities are,” he said.

PTO Embezzler Arrested

TOWNSHEND, Vt-After a two month long investigation by the Vermont State Police Westminster woman who had been a suspect in the investigation since October 18 been arrested and cited to appear on December 27th in Windham County Court for embezzling an estimated $2,000 from the Townshend Elementary PTO Group over the last 2 years.

Elissa Wagner, 40 former treasurer of the TES PTO Club which raises funds specifically for activities and field trips to benefit the students was cited into court five days ago on November 17th.

Previously, it appeared that they had a suspect but the identity was until there was confirmation and an arrest.

On October 25th, the Vermont State Police in Westminster posted a press release on the VSP blogspot reporting the incident was under investigation.

“On 10/17/2022 at 1701 hours, Vermont State Police received a report of alleged embezzlement of funds by a member of PTO at the Townshend Elementary School in the Town of Townshend. Troopers are currently investigating and more information will be released when the investigation has concluded.”

Then on November 17th the VSP reported that they had made an arrest.

“On the above date and time, Vermont State Police Westminster received a report of missing funds from the Townshend School PTO Club. The club reported Elissa Wagner had allegedly embezzled more than $2,000 over the past two years during which she served as the club’s treasurer. Further investigation confirmed Wagner had stolen the funds.”

On October 18th one day after the VSP announced their investigation the Townshend School Club Facebook page issued a statement reaching out to the community to stay strong and continue their support of the club, the PTO group and the school.

They claimed that they were trying to be transparent in the report of their findings and revealed the position of Wagner only as the treasurer of the PTO without her name in their post.

“It is with the heaviest of hearts that we must bring to light an incident regarding School Club funds. We regret to inform you that the former treasurer of our School Club has been embezzling funds for personal use from our bank account and fundraiser money for approximately the past 2 years. We understand that there have been inquiries regarding the clearing of checks paid from previous fundraisers which has led to an investigation into our accounts where we found discrepancies.”

They continued to speak to the community on their position in the investigation.

“While this is currently under investigation and we have consulted assistance from state authorities, we cannot confirm/deny the amount that has been taken by the individual whom we trusted and loved. We can, however, promise you transparency to the fullest extent of what the investigation allows and continued transparency moving forward. As parents ourselves who have put in extensive hours into the fundraisers and our own money to benefit the children of TES, we are just as heartbroken and angry as you may be.”

The TSC page post clearly outlined their plans moving forward.

“The School Club will be undergoing a major structural transformation with the guided support of TES administration and community members. We want to make it clear that the School Club is a parent organization and is in no way affiliated with the WRED school district. At this time, Jesi Thomas will remain as President, Michelle Goulet will remain Vice President and Renee Deurloo-Michaud will remain Secretary and now take on the role of Interim Treasurer.”

They asked their community to not lose faith and trust in their mission

“We wish for this tragedy to not deter you from attending meetings and continuing to donate your time and items needed, but to encourage you to be part of our TES School Club community. As a fundraising club, we are relied on to financially support things like class trips, fun events and student/teacher enrichment. Now is not the time to let this separate us but to come together as a community in support of our school.”

According to the statutes on the Vermont General Assembly website, the charge of larceny ranges from civil to criminal.

“A person entrusted with the charge of money, land, or other property belonging to a town or school district for the use of schools, who embezzled, misapplies, or conceals the same or any part thereof shall be liable to be removed from his or her trust and shall forfeit to such town or district double the amount so embezzled, misapplied, or concealed, to be recovered in a civil action on this statute, in the name of such town or district, with costs.”

The potential increase in charges is outlined as criminal if the individual hold a position in a municipality..

“A State, county, town, or municipal officer or other person who in his or her official capacity receives, collects, controls, or holds money, obligations, securities, or other property, who embezzles or fraudulently converts to his or her own use any of such money, obligations, securities, or other property, or a person who embezzled or fraudulently converts to his or her own use money or other property belonging to the State or to a county or municipality, or a municipal corporation, or a special purpose district, shall be guilty of larceny and shall be imprisoned not more than 10 years or fined not more than $1,000.00, or both.”