High overdose rates in the state has been cited as one of the main reasons opponents are against legalizing cannabis.
Despite strong opposition in a state reeling from the opioid epidemic, marijuana legalization came closer to New Hampshire on Thursday (Feb. 21), when a bill to legalize cannabis in the state moved forward by just one vote.
According to New Hampshire Public Radio, the measure passed the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee by a vote of 10 to 9. It will now be considered by the full House of Representatives, but Governor Chris Sununu, who recently started his second term, has vowed to veto the bill if it gets that far.
New Hampshire, known as a popular vacation destination because of its scenic lakes and mountains, has in recent years become known for a more sinister reason: the prevalence of opioid addiction in the state. New Hampshire has one of the highest per-capita overdose rates in the country.
At the same time, the Granite State has been a holdout in the march toward legalization of recreational marijuana, becoming the last New England state to ban cannabis use.
Sununu and others in New Hampshire feel it would be irresponsible to legalize cannabis when the state is fighting what often seems like a losing battle against opioids. According to The New York Times, the governor spoke out strongly against legalization last fall.
“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.”
Sununu is a Republican, but in New Hampshire there is bipartisan skepticism about marijuana legalization. Both U.S. senators from New Hampshire, Democrats Maggie Hassan and Jeanne Shaheen, have expressed concerns or actively opposed legalization.
Ronald G. Shaiko, a senior fellow studying public policy and social sciences at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, said that residents in the state feel that the government hasn’t responded well to the opioid epidemic, and are wary of adding more drugs into the mix. Because of this, Sununu’s opposition is resonating.
“He’s hitting a chord,” Shaiko said.
Tym Rourke oversees treatment and addiction programming at the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation. He said that even if marijuana is only dangerous for some people, that is not a risk that the state can take when hundreds of people are dying from opioid overdoses each year.
He said, “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?”
However, proponents including State Representative Renny Cushing, who is sponsoring the legalization bill, argue that increasing access to marijuana can actually reduce rates of opioid overdose.
“What we’ve come to understand is that marijuana in many instances is an exit drug, not a gateway drug,” he said.