This week the New Hampshire House of Representatives will vote on a bill that would eliminate felony charges for first-time drug possession charges. The bill, HB 615, would ease other drug charges, as well.
Proposal to lighten the gavel on drug charges
- Dealers would see their maximum sentences cut by 5 to 10 years, depending on the quantity of drugs
- Defendants facing their first conviction for drug possession would get a misdemeanor charge, rather than a Class B felony charge
- Prosecutors could choose to charge repeat possession offenders at either the misdemeanor or felony level
- Offenders convicted of dealing with 1,000 feet of a school or convicted as a “drug enterprise leader” would no longer face mandatory minimum sentences; the courts could still choose an enhanced sentence for these crimes
- Dealers would face harsher sentences for possessing smaller amounts of fentanyl
Criminal charges are not a cure
Supporters of HB 615 point to research that harsher criminal sentences do not reduce substance abuse in a community. In fact, the trauma and stigma of a criminal conviction can make it much more difficult for a person to find work, stay clean, and participate in the community.
There is also a long history of black, Indigenous and people of color being disproportionately arrested for, charged with, and convicted of drug crimes. For example, a 2016 report from NHPR revealed racial disparities in arrest and incarceration rates in New Hampshire.
Is now the time for lighter drug sentences?
Some opponents of HB 615 believe a felony penalty is necessary to deter people from trying hard drugs like heroin and cocaine. Others similarly argue that there is no justification for decreasing the minimum and maximum sentences for drug dealers, who profit of others’ illness.
Meanwhile other states, notably Colorado, are experimenting with decriminalizing other drugs, particularly “magic” mushrooms. New Hampshire can no doubt learn from the experience of these states before easing its criminal penalties.
If HB 615 passes the House it will move to the Senate for a public hearing.