By GARRY RAYNO, InDepthNH.org

CONCORD –A bill designed to make cannabis use in a vehicle a violation that resembles an open alcohol container attracted attention on Wednesday.

Supporters of Senate Bill 60 said it was intended to make the state’s highways safer, but many more people said it targeted and discriminated against the 11,000+ citizens in the medical marijuana program.

The bill was passed by the Senate last month by a 21-3 vote, but those who opposed the bill on the House Criminal Justice and Public Security Committee heard more than 95-33 supporters.

The bill was requested by police, main sponsor Sen. Bill Gannon, R-Sandown, said, and is designed to make driving safer for everyone.

He said the number of people stopped for driving under the influence of alcohol has decreased, but the number of people stopped for driving under the influence of cannabis and other drugs has increased.

The bill follows the current law on open alcohol containers in a vehicle, Gannon said, to keep open containers of various forms of cannabis as far away from the driver as possible.

“This is to prevent people from being affected while driving,” said Gannon.

But others said the real intention was different.

Heather Marie Brown, member of the NH Therapeutic Cannabis Medical Oversight Board and program participant, accused the bill of “being designed and created with the intent to care for therapeutic cannabis patients, and that is all this bill does.”

If she had an open container in her purse and her mother was driving, her mother could potentially be arrested, she said.

“This was designed to create discrimination and division,” Brown said. “This is a direct attack on patients and undermines patients.”

Matt Simon of the Marijuana Policy Project described the bill as “a major step backwards for criminal justice reform in New Hampshire”.

He said it treats cannabis the same way as alcohol when they are very different.

Someone with an open can of beer or a bottle of whiskey in a car is likely to drink it, but cannabis is more like an open pack of cigarettes, he said, which doesn’t mean you smoke in the vehicle.

One of the reasons for decriminalizing recreational marijuana use was to shift the focus of law enforcement from small users to more serious crimes, Simon said, and this bill would return to the days of law enforcement focused on small amounts of cannabis.

Rep. Jerry Knirk, D-Freedom, co-chair of the board of directors and physician, suggested exempting patients and caregivers in the state program from the bill, as did Michael Holt of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Knirk said medical marijuana is not the same as recreational use.

“The goal is not to get high, but to treat a disease,” he said. “Getting tall is a negative side effect.”

It is currently illegal to pass cannabis on to someone else, and a criminal sanction and loss of certification will be imposed.

Holt noted that patients are registered in the program and, like any other drug, legally own cannabis. There is no law against opening an open prescription drug bottle in a vehicle.

Under state law, possession of cannabis is treated like any other drug for registered patients, he said.

Lobbyist Michael McLaughlin said SB 60 committee would be in violation of applicable law and give program participants “a right to positive defense.”

With the proposed bill, a patient could be arrested and then go to court at the expense of the battle, where he or she would win with an affirmative defense, McLaughlin told the committee.

Andrew Shagoury, Tuftonboro police chief who represents the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police, said police are seeing more and more drivers under the influence of cannabis.

“This is not about legalization or decriminalization,” Shagoury said. “This is about public safety and vehicles on public roads.”

He said the proposed law was modeled on the Open Container Act, which requires an open alcohol container to be in the trunk of a vehicle and, if that is not possible, as far away from the driver as possible so that he or she is not tempted.

With more alternative treatment centers opening around the state, patients shouldn’t have long drives to return home.

With cannabis, he said, there are no standards for determining impairment, as there are with alcohol. Adding it will affect people differently, and the type of cannabis product, like the gummy bears, is also a factor.

“The goal is to make sure it’s safer on the roads,” Shagoury said. “It’s not about criminalizing marijuana or finding medical marijuana users.”

Buzz Scherr, a professor at the University of New Hampshire Law School, said the fundamental problem with the bill is that it is indirectly designed to do what is already banned: driving while under the influence of marijuana.

The committee did not make an immediate recommendation on the bill.

Garry Rayno can be reached at garry.rayno@yahoo.com.