Sununu offers 'path' for legal marijuana sales he would support

May 12—CONCORD — A day after the cause took what looked like a fatal blow, Gov. Chris Sununu said Friday he would sign legislation that would have the state control the legal sale of marijuana to adults for recreational use with a program focused on "harm reduction, not profits."

Sununu said there is still time in the waning weeks of the 2023 legislative session to get this long-debated topic over the finish line.

"Similar to our liquor sales, this path helps to keep substances away from kids by ensuring the state of New Hampshire retains control of marketing, sales, and distribution — eliminating any need for additional taxes," Sununu said in a statement.

"As such, the bill that was defeated in New Hampshire this session was not the right path for our state."

On Thursday, the state Senate voted, 14-10, to kill legislation (HB 639) that would have allowed marijuana to be sold at commercial retail outlets across the state.

The legislation would have imposed a 12.5% tax on the finished product at the wholesale level, with half the profits going toward state aid to public schools, 30% toward public employee pension costs and the other 20% for substance abuse prevention and other human service programs.

Sununu said putting the State Liquor Commission in the "driver's seat" for sales of all legal marijuana would ensure the product was safe without any marketing of it to children.

"New Hampshire must avoid marijuana miles — the term for densely concentrated marijuana shops within one city or town. Any city or town that wants to ban shops should be free to do so," Sununu said.

"The state would not impose any taxes, and should control all messaging, avoiding billboards, commercials, and digital ads that bombard kids on a daily basis."

Similar bill failed in '22

The outline of Sununu's proposal is similar to legislation (HB 1598) the New Hampshire House passed in 2022 but the Senate rejected on a voice vote.

"This is a long-term, sustainable solution for our state. I am supportive of legalizing marijuana in the right way — with this Legislature — rather than risk a poorly thought out framework that inevitably could pass under future governors or legislatures," Sununu said.

House Majority Leader Jason Osborne, R-Auburn, who had been lobbying Sununu for months, found the governor's support gratifying. "I see the governor read my recent Union Leader article; glad to see him weigh in with his support," Osborne said.

Senate Democratic Leader Donna Soucy of Manchester and Assistant Leader Becky Whitley of Hopkinton dismissed Sununu's statement as playing politics.

"It is without question that Governor Sununu's statements this morning are the definition of a day late and a dollar short," they wrote in a joint statement.

"Rather than simply positioning himself to run for higher office, instead, we would encourage the governor to have a more meaningful role in governing the state moving forward."

But Frank Knaack, policy director with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire, said lawmakers should follow Sununu's lead.

"We agree wholeheartedly that the core of marijuana legalization is about harm reduction, particularly for communities unjustly targeted by the war on drugs that get needlessly ensnared in New Hampshire's criminal legal system every year," Knaack said in a statement.

"With the governor's clear commitment to signing such legislation, we urge lawmakers in both chambers to make 2023 the year the Granite State finally legalizes marijuana."

If the legislature can come together on Sununu's plan, several pending bills dealing with marijuana could become a vehicle for this proposal.

Matt Simon, a former executive with the Marijuana Policy Project, said, "HB 1598 barely squeaked through the House last year, and it got zero votes in the Senate because legislators recognized that the bill was deeply flawed.

"If this general approach is going to be reconsidered, the bill absolutely needs additional work before it is ready to become law."

During Sununu's four terms as governor, he has signed legislation that decriminalized the sale of small amounts of marijuana, expanded access to medical marijuana and signed a law to permit annulling old convictions for marijuana possession.

"Knowing that a majority of our residents support legalization, it is reasonable to assume change is inevitable. To ignore this reality would be shortsighted and harmful," Sununu added.