After a passionate debate, the New Hampshire House of Representatives endorsed a bill Wednesday that would legalize marijuana in the state.
The vote was a nail-biter, with closely divided legislators initially voting against legalization 170-168 before choosing to vote again, the second time approving legalizing pot with 170 votes.
The bill, HB 492, would decriminalize possession of one ounce of marijuana by adults age 21 or older and allow residents to grow up to six plants. State-licensed stores would be authorized to sell marijuana.
After premliminarily endorsing the measure, lawmakers referred it to a second House committee, the Ways and Means Committee, for further refinement.
Despite the victory – the first of its kind in an American legislature – legalization remains a longshot in the Granite State.
Gov. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., says she opposes making her state the first on the East Coast to legalize weed.
"I don't support the decriminalization of marijuana any further, and I would veto it if it comes to my desk," Hassan told WMUR-TV on Monday. A two-thirds vote in the both New Hampshire's House and Senate is needed to overturn the promised veto.
Colorado and Washington state voters legalized marijuana in November 2012. The nation's first recreational marijuana stores opened in Colorado on Jan. 1. Despite polls showing growing public support nationwide for legalization, state legislatures have until now taken a back seat to grassroots initiative campaigns.
HB 492 sponsor Rep. Steve Vaillancourt, a Republican, gave an impassioned speech Wednesday saying the time had come for legislators to embrace the public opinion pivot.
"Just as we would no longer say women have to go back in the kitchen or gays have to go back in the closet, we recognize that times have changed," Vaillancourt said. "We are no longer slaves to our misguided past."
Vaillancourt said youth would be less likely to use the drug because the black market would dry up and argued the state would gain millions of dollars in tax revenue – with a 15 percent excise tax on marijuana – as well as save millions that would be spent on anti-marijuana enforcement.
"As a libertarian I've always believed people are responsible for their own decisions: you drink too much, you smoke too much, you pay the consequences," Vaillancourt said, sharing that he personally consumes too much salt.
"We have survived the days of 'Reefer Madness' [and] we need to excise the mentality," he said.
A WMUR Granite State Poll conducted Oct. 1-7 found 60 percent support among New Hampshire residents for HB 492 and only 36 percent opposition. Support was highest among Democrats, at 78 percent, and among men, at 68 percent.
The bill would provide 18 months for the state to develop regulations for state-licensed stores.
Bill co-sponsor Rep. Joel Winters, a Democrat, said "adults have fundamental right to make their own decisions about their own bodies" and speculated there would be an influx of tourism.
"These young people are going to say, 'we're going to New Hampshire,'" Winters said.
Rep. Romeo Danais, a Republican supporter of the bill, said, "Some people say that legalizing marijuana would be a gateway to other drugs, [but] that's not true - many years ago I smoked marijuana."
"Everyone who has used heroin has at one point drinked milk," he quipped.
Danais humorously invited Democrats, who hold a majority in the chamber, to join his position.
"President Nixon's war on drugs truly has been an abject failure," Danais said. "This will be a wonderful opportunity for Democrats to vote against President Nixon."
Rep. Ruth Gage, a Democrat, said high schools are currently marketplaces for marijuana.
"We do know one thing: drug dealers don't ask for ID," Gage said. Addressing health concerns, she said: "Despite what we've been taught all our lives, marijuana is actually a far less harmful substance [than alcohol]."