The New Hampshire State House in repose. Credit: Teemu008 / Flickr

After running up against a 2019 veto of legislation to legalize recreational cannabis use and sales from Gov. Chris Sununu, advocates are now trying multiple paths to ensure success in 2021.

Three pending House bills, three separate legislative requests for ballot measures for legalization for recreational sales and use, and a looming U.S. Senate race are all bringing cannabis to the forefront of political discussion in the Granite State.

“Hopefully, if we can push through multiple options, one of them might make it through,” said Daryl Eames of the New Hampshire Cannabis Association.

Bills that would legalize adult-use consumption and sales, as well as home grows are currently waiting in the House’s Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. There is also a third bill in the same committee that would reduce fines for possession of cannabis in the event that it is not legalized.

All three bills are waiting for New Hampshire’s next six-month legislative session, which starts in January.

“We’ve passed many of these bills out of the House,” said Eames, noting that in 2019 both the House and Senate passed an adult-use legalization bill, before Gov. Sununu vetoed it. There was not enough support in the Senate, which originally passed the bill 14-10, to override the veto.

Meanwhile, there are three separate efforts in the legislature to place legalization on the 2022 ballot.

Ballot measures are the only way to amend the New Hampshire Constitution. To be placed on the ballot, a state legislator must first propose the measure, and then obtain 60% majorities in both the House and Senate. The governor has no ability to veto placement of a ballot measure. Once on the ballot, the question needs 67% voter approval.

Success through a ballot measure is quite possible, based on a May, 2021 study from the University of New Hampshire, which found that 75% of state residents support legalizing the recreational use of cannabis. Although fewer Granite State Republicans support full legalization, the study found a majority 62% GOPers favored legalization.

Even with broad support, exactly how a legal adult-use cannabis industry would operate is still up in the air without clearly defined regulation, and bills that could still be altered in committee. 

The New Hampshire legislature legalized medical marijuana in 2013, creating the state’s Therapeutic Cannabis Program. Eight years later, there are only seven dispensaries, or alternative treatment centers, in the state, split between three non-profit companies, Prime, Sanctuary, and Temescal Wellness.

“It’s impossible to know how legalization will impact New Hampshire’s therapeutic cannabis program until legislators decide how they want to regulate the adult-use market,” said Matt Simon, director of public and government relations for Prime ATC. “The policy details are going to matter a lot, and so far there hasn’t been much consensus.”

Next year is an election year for New Hampshire, which elects its governor every two years, and one of New Hampshire’s U.S. Senate seats will be at stake, when Democratic incumbent Maggie Hassan faces reelection.

Gov. Sununu has yet to announce whether or not he will run against Hassan, but a recent public appearance alongside Florida Sen. Rick Scott, who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee, has caused some to speculate that Sununu intends to run.

“My political understanding is that he’s saying all the things that make me think he will run,” said Democratic state Rep. Timothy Egan.

A poll conducted by the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College in August found that Sununu was leading Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan, 49%-41%, in a hypothetical race for the Senate.

Sununu’s office did not respond to an emailed request for comment, nor did the NRSC.

Ironically, if Sununu were to run against Hassan, his gubernatorial predecessor, he could argue that he had the better record on cannabis, despite vetoing adult-use, because of his support for decriminalization in 2017 and his expansion of the ailments that are covered by the state’s Therapeutic Cannabis Program. 

“He’s technically the most pro-cannabis governor we’ve ever had, but that’s a very low bar,” said Eames.

Cannabis will likely be a campaign trail issue, especially if it becomes one that voters will address. The upcoming senate race will likely receive a lot of national attention, considering the potential to flip a seat in what is currently a 50-50 split Senate.

“It will make it a statewide discussion on a national level. It may force Sununu to discuss it more,” said Egan. “It may force him to come to the center and this is a center left issue.”

On the other hand, if Sununu were to opt for a fourth two-year term in the governor’s office, cannabis could still be a potential issue for a Democratic challenger.

In any case, the topic of cannabis will likely be a frequent refrain for the Granite State in 2022, especially with legalized adult use in every bordering state.

“We can’t just be an island of purity,” said Egan.

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Zack cut his journalistic teeth covering high school sports in the south before spending a decade covering local government, politics and the courts in the Boston, Massachusetts area. He's previously written...