CONCORD, N.H. – Law enforcement bills aimed at addressing drug offenses and drinking and driving were presented to the Senate Judiciary Committee, receiving support from Governor Chris Sununu. The bills discussed included measures to crack down on drug dealers whose products result in fatalities. However, one bill proposing reduced criminal liability for first-time drug offenders faced opposition from law enforcement officials and committee chairwoman, Senator Sharon Carson.
Senate Bill 570-FN, sponsored by Senator Becky Whitley, aims to shift the focus from criminalization to treatment for drug offenders. The bill seeks to reduce penalties and promote rehabilitation. A total of 10 bills were heard throughout the day, covering a range of drug and driving-related issues.
Two bills focused on regulating the levels of THC, the active ingredient in marijuana, in the bloodstream. However, these bills were withdrawn by their sponsor, Senator William Gannon. Instead, an amended version of Senate Bill 418 proposes stricter penalties for individuals who refuse to take a breathalyzer test when suspected of impaired driving. In New Hampshire, approximately 70% of citizens decline the test. Another amended bill, SB 419, now permits the Department of Health and Human Services to conduct a study on the therapeutic cannabis program.
Governor Sununu expressed support for Senate Bills 414 and 415, which increase mandatory minimum sentences for drug trafficking and distribution resulting in death. The Governor emphasized the need to hold drug dealers accountable for the harm caused to New Hampshire citizens. In a letter to the Senate Judiciary, he urged the advancement of these bills to reflect the severity of drug-related offenses.
During the committee hearing, Senator Gannon introduced a revised version of Senate Bill 418, which focuses on administrative license suspensions for breathalyzer refusal. The amended bill proposes longer license suspensions and considers out-of-state DUI convictions as prior offenses. Gannon also emphasized the inclusion of incentives for plea bargains and the possibility of avoiding jail time for aggravated DUI offenses.
Public opinion on the bills varied. Some experts, such as Len Harden, a North County attorney, questioned the scientific accuracy of THC blood levels. However, with the deletion of that aspect, Harden suggested prominently notifying individuals of the 180-day license suspension for breathalyzer refusal to encourage compliance. Another bill sponsored by Gannon, Senate Bill 426, aimed to regulate the possession of cannabis products in motor vehicles, similar to open alcohol containers.
The hearing also included Senate Bill 570, sponsored by Senator Whitley, which seeks to amend penalties for drug possession. Whitley highlighted the importance of emphasizing treatment and providing more community resources rather than relying purely on criminal penalties. However, Manchester Police Detective Matthew McDonald warned against reducing penalties for first-time drug offenders, citing increasing drug quantities and potency.
As the committee deliberated, Devon Chaffee, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire, argued for providing second chances to individuals without burdening them with criminal records. Chaffee contended that reducing sentences for drug offenses would make communities safer and address disproportionate harm faced by people of color.
Ultimately, differing opinions emerged, with Senator Carson advocating for a serious reaction to drug offenses. She believed that society would benefit from robust measures in dealing with such offenses.