by Garret Ean
Feb 5 2012
As the NH house and senate return to a full schedule for public hearings, I’ve made an effort to maintain camera coverage for certain bills. Last week was a house hearing on HB 1705, which would heavily restrict, but effectively legalize home consumption of cannabis in the state of New Hampshire. The ‘tax and regulate’ bill was complimented with a decriminalization bill. The decrim bill, heard on February 2nd, would have set the penalty for cannabis possession of under an ounce at a $100 fine. The bill was amended to criminalize the third possession, so in a sense, this bill only decriminalizes cannabis possession for one’s first two offenses. The bills are imperfect, as all are, but both represent a very progressive step forward for cannabis policy reform in New Hampshire, a state which is far behind all other New England political subdivisions in this sense.
As is to be expected, those that escalate the drug war, the enforcers who invest their consciences into the fight, will speak at hearings impassioned to continue what they consider to be important work. Occasionally, those who are invested in such work recognize it to be harmful in nature, and separate themselves from the job that they do to speak out against the ill caused by the role that they play. Such rejection of the standard rally cry to continue the war on drugs is voiced by Richard Van Wickler, who in his day job is the administrator of the Cheshire county jail. He comes to the hearing acknowledging that he is not representing the role he plays at his job, and that he has taken a vacation day to express his personal feelings before decision makers in Concord. Richard is one of the few speakers on behalf of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition who is currently employed in the criminal justice industry, showing how unpopular holding such a viewpoint is while actively working in the field. Below is his testimony favoring the legalization legislation, as filmed by Biker Bill.
Prohibition’s latest warriors
At the restricted-legalization hearing on HB 1705, the chief of police of Franklin appeared before the committee in full uniform representing the NH Chiefs of Police Association, who always send a representative to speak against any drug policy reform. In the past, an Enfield police chief was the usual spokesman. Since appearing on an episode of NH Outlook in which he was schooled with information on medicinal cannabis, that chief has not appeared at committee hearings. At the decrim hearing, HB 1526, the room appeared populated with the normal handful of lobbyists and concerned citizens. But in glancing at the blue sheet, a form which expresses generic support or opposition for those present, there was a significant population of names in opposition who were not in the room. Alongside their names was listed the Franklin Youth Initiative, and all had marked themselves as in opposition to the bill.
After the representatives and a few government officials spoke both for and against the bill, the call was made for the next speaker by the committee chair. The Franklin Youth Initiative was summoned. The crew of five high school students and a health teacher from Franklin High School proceeded in and stood at the table for testimony. The teacher and one student had prepared statements, and all responded to some questions by legislators.
Arguing in favor of strict cannabis enforcement, FYI didn’t try to acknowledge the failures of prohibition in preventing drug use. Their plea focused on the aura of fear associated with the black market and the importance of retaining that aura of criminality. The harsh punishment they consider a necessity in exchange for a perceived deterrent effect that strict laws may have. They submitted written testimony to the committee on the dangers of cannabis use. The written testimony consisted of an inconclusive study published by the Psychiatric Times investigating a link between cannabis use and schizophrenia.
Though the committee asked them some wise questions, I wanted to learn more about the motivations of the Franklin Youth Initiative. After they had finished speaking, they left the hearing and went out into the often busy hall. Instead of a camera, in my hand was a notepad, and I recorded responses from the group. I began by confirming that they opposed the decriminalization of all drugs, which they affirmed, except alcohol. Though the group discouraged the use of alcohol, none of them supported the prohibition of the drug. When I asked if they could account for the violent crime associated with prohibited substances and what becomes of that crime when the substance is legalized, I got the impression that this may be the first time many of the students were hearing factual points in favor of drug legalization and against prohibition policy.
When I inquired into whether they would support the sick having access to cannabis as medicine, they cited synthetic marinol being an ample substitute. I didn’t want to much venture into the realm of educator from interviewer in pointing out that cannabis is often smoked as medicine to stimulate appetite in cancer patients. The pill form marinol is not only less tested than natural cannabis, but it also may not be consumable by those whose problems are digestive in nature. In speaking further on the benefits of medical alternatives to cannabis, one student reported that approved medicines are safer in that the toxic substances in the cannabis are removed. No scientific research has uncovered any substances within cannabis that could be classified as toxic, as it is one of the safest consumable substances known to man, being less toxic than many natural foods which would never be considered dangerous.
Early in the video, the health teacher mentions that “the FYI is working with the Franklin mayor’s drug task force”. It is likely the trip was organized by the bureaucratic opponents of cannabis reform, using the participation of young people to draw attention to the bill. Their testimony seemed as though it would have been more appropriate at the legalization hearing, though strategically they may have chosen to appear at the decrim hearing because the less extensive measure is more likely to pass.
I hope that the young people of the Franklin Youth Initiative keep an open mind to what it is that they are encouraging by advocating non-violent actions be treated as criminal, and responded to violently. See the footage of their appearance before the house criminal justice committee embedded below.
Feb 8 2012: The Free Concord video of the Franklin Youth Initiative’s testimony was featured in this week’s episode of Free Keene TV, a local access news show in Cheshire county.