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N.H. Gov. Hassan Unlikely To Back Decriminalizing Small Amount Of Pot


New Hampshire takes its liberties seriously. Yet, as marijuana laws have loosened in several states, including every other state in New England, possessing even a small amount of marijuana in New Hampshire can still land someone in jail. A bill before the state's Republican-controlled legislature would change that. But it's not clear if the Democratic governor will get on board. New Hampshire Public Radio's Josh Rogers reports.

JOSH ROGERS, BYLINE: If you were an advocate of looser marijuana laws, freewheeling New Hampshire, where seatbelts are optional and the state puts liquor stores at highway rest stops, might seem fertile ground. But pot's an issue that defies the state's live-free-or-die image.

GOVERNOR MAGGIE HASSAN: Well, first and foremost, it's illegal under federal law.

ROGERS: That's Democratic Governor Maggie Hassan. She made those comments after the GOP-controlled New Hampshire House voted by more than 3-1 to decriminalize marijuana possession up to a half ounce.

HASSAN: Secondly, what we know - the more research has been done - is that it has a very serious impact on young people. So I think it's really important to proceed with caution.

ROGERS: And caution has been the watchword for top Democrats here. Hassan's predecessor, John Lynch, vetoed medical marijuana twice. Hassan ended up signing that bill when it passed a third time in 2012, but only after it was tightened to make it the most stringent law of its kind in the country. Longtime Democratic Representative Dan Eaton is a decriminalization backer. He says cultivating a tough-on-drugs image has been good for Democratic governors and a key political ally, the law enforcement lobby.

REPRESENTATIVE DAN EATON: Unquestionably, you have the factor that the chiefs associations, the state police association, all these groups are very strong supporters of this governor and the prior governor and have come out emphatically in opposition.

ROGERS: And New Hampshire's law enforcement groups are emphatic on marijuana. Here's David Goldstein, of the New Hampshire Police Chiefs, testifying before lawmakers last month.


DAVID GOLDSTEIN: Minimizing the fine and the effects and the severity of this offense sends the very wrong message to our children and our young adults. Never even trying the substance should be our goal.

ROGERS: Decriminalization backers meanwhile argue that keeping simple possession a Class A misdemeanor, which carries a maximum penalty of a $2,000 fine and a year in jail, is outmoded. Jon Cohen is a Concord defense attorney.

JON COHEN: I've had clients that have gone to jail for possession of marijuana. They do go to jail for possession of marijuana. And this law would help to remedy that problem because that is completely out of step with the rest of New England.

ROGERS: And it's this argument that may carry the day. No one close to this issue is expecting agreement this year on any policy that would truly decriminalize marijuana. But a proposal to relax penalties on a first offense, that might stand a chance with Governor Maggie Hassan.

HASSAN: I do think that a first offense shouldn't ruin a young person's life.

ROGERS: Not exactly live free or die, but for those out to decriminalize marijuana in New Hampshire, better than the status quo. For NPR News, I'm Josh Rogers in Concord, N.H. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Josh has worked at NHPR since 2000 and serves as NHPRâââ