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Ari Schechter,

April 20, 2022

Startling racial bias: Black people 4.8x more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession in NH than white people

NH taxpayers may still be paying close to $3.25 million annually to enforce current marijuana possession laws

New bills to roll back bail reform create additional disparate impact on communities of color

CONCORD, N.H. – The ACLU of New Hampshire today released a new report on the human, economic, and disparate impacts of the Granite State’s marijuana laws, which even after some decriminalization, still arrest 1,500 people each year.

This June will mark America’ 52nd year of the failed war on drugs, and yet New Hampshire overwhelmingly supports legalizing marijuana—with nearly 75 percent of people in the Granite State supporting legalization, including majorities of Democrats, Independents, and Republicans. Currently, there are two bills before the New Hampshire Senate to legalize marijuana (HB 1598 and HB 629), which will head to Governor Sununu’s desk if passed by the Senate.

“New Hampshire’s war on marijuana does not make us safer, it wastes taxpayer dollars, and ruins lives—it’s time for it to end,” said Frank Knaack, Policy Director at the ACLU of New Hampshire. “The human, economic, and racial justice impacts of our current marijuana laws are devastating. This year, New Hampshire lawmakers must listen to the nearly 75 percent of Granite Staters who support legalizing and finally legalize marijuana.”

Despite New Hampshire decriminalizing marijuana possession in 2017, the state still arrested nearly 1,500 people for marijuana possession in 2020—the most recent year of data available. And that enforcement sees a staggering racial bias: in 2020, Black people in New Hampshire were 4.8 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession when compared with white people, even though both groups use marijuana at roughly the same rate. This disparity is on the rise, up from 2.6 times more likely in 2010—a 46 percent increase.

The racial bias in enforcement is even more pronounced in the city police departments in Manchester and Concord, where the disparities are 13.9 times and 5.8 times, respectively.

New Hampshire’s marijuana laws use taxpayer dollars to enforce: for every marijuana arrest, tax dollars pay for a judge, clerk, police, prosecutor, and others to process each case. According to an economic analysis published in 2013, the 2,769 marijuana possession arrests in 2010 cost New Hampshire taxpayers $6,526,364 that year. With 1, 494 people being arrested for possession in 2020, that means New Hampshire taxpayers may still be paying close to $3.25 million each year to enforce marijuana laws.

A marijuana possession arrest can ruin lives. These arrests are not just an unnecessary burden on New Hampshire residents and the judicial system, but also negatively affect access to employment, housing, and child custody, among others, for the person arrested. These collateral harms can last for decades, even after someone has served their time or paid any required fines.

Bail Reform

The report also dives into the fear-not-fact attacks on the state’s reformed bail system. Beginning in 2018, the N.H. legislature passed a series of reforms to reduce wealth-based incarceration. For the following two years, a diverse group of stakeholders, including prosecutors, judges, legislators, jail superintendents, and civil liberties advocates, met to refine that system and passed new recommendations in 2019 and 2020.

Despite this work, there has been a sustained push from law enforcement to repeal New Hampshire’s bail reforms – a push that relies on anecdotes and fear-based rhetoric that is divorced from reality. In committee hearings and before the media, police chiefs and proponents peddled fear, sharing horrible stories about people on bail allegedly committing more crimes. However, the report released today pulls data from the N.H. Department of Safety that tells a different story – one where crime continues to decrease dramatically.

Two bills proposed this year, SB 294 and HB 1476, seek to roll back the important reforms and would instead create the potential to unnecessarily incarcerate thousands of Granite Staters—and at a great financial cost. Additionally, the legislation would disproportionately harm Black people in the state, where criminal laws are already enforced with stunning racial bias. For example, in 2020, Black people were 3.29 times more likely to be arrested when compared with white people.