CONCORD, N.H. -- New Hampshire's House gave preliminary approval Wednesday to legalizing up to 1 ounce of marijuana for recreational use for anyone age 21 and older, but the measure faces long odds of becoming law.
The House voted 170-162 after a 2 1/2-hour heated debate to send the bill to its tax committee to review before taking a final vote. The bill proposes taxing the drug when it is sold at retail at a rate of $30 per ounce and letting people grow up to six marijuana plants in a controlled environment.
The bill narrowly escaped death after the House voted to kill it by two votes, then reconsidered and voted to pass it. If it passes the House in a full vote, it isn't likely to survive as the Senate rejected a bill to decriminalize possession of up to one-quarter ounce of the drug last year and Gov. Maggie Hassan has promised to veto it if it reaches her desk.
The Marijuana Policy Project applauded the House vote as being the first time a legislative chamber has voted to treat the drug like alcohol.
"House members made history today and they are clearly on the right side of it," said Matt Simon, the group's New Hampshire-based New England political director.
"If the people lead, the leaders will follow," said Stephen Gutwillig, deputy executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "The voters of Colorado and Washington showed there is a way to control marijuana more effectively and now elected officials are following their example."
House supporters said the bill was modeled after one approved by Colorado voters last year and is similar to one Washington voters passed. They said New Hampshire could receive $30 million annually in tax revenue.
Opponents argued marijuana is bad for people's health, would be difficult to regulate and is illegal under federal law.
Lawmakers have rejected decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana for recreational use in the past, most recently last session. But decriminalization supporters were encouraged when the state --with Hassan's backing -- made it legal for the seriously ill to possess and use the drug last year. Implementing the state's medical marijuana law is expected to take another year.
Rep. William Butynski, D-Hinsdale, urged that the House wait to see what happens in Colorado and Washington before loosening New Hampshire's law.
"Please use common sense. Be patient. Protect our children," he said.
But supporters argued the public is ready to legalize the drug and reap the profits now going to drug cartels.
"Billions of dollars of tax free money is in the hands of drug gangs," said Rep. Romeo Danais, R-Nottingham.
"Passage of this bill would send a message that we recognize that times change," said Rep. Steve Vaillancourt, R-Manchester.