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Man’s Jail Death Adds New Face to Debate on Cannabis Laws

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — The recent death of a man who was behind bars on a cannabis possession charge has put a new face on the debate over decriminalizing marijuana in New Hampshire, the only New England state without some form of marijuana decriminalization law.

Jeffrey Pendleton, 26, died last month in a Manchester jail where he was being held because he couldn't pay the $100 bail on charges of marijuana possession. The medical examiner's office said he died from a fentanyl overdose and has ruled his death an accident.

The debate over the state's marijuana policies will come to a head in the Senate Thursday, when the chamber debates a bill that would remove criminal penalties for possessing half an ounce or less of marijuana and reduce penalties for larger amounts. The bill has passed the House, but the upper chamber has historically rejected such efforts.

Twenty states have some form of decriminalization, according to NORML, a non-profit advocating for looser marijuana laws.

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Advocates for such a change say existing law disproportionately affects poor people and can permanently mar someone's record, making it harder for them to get a job or into college.

"I would like to think that somebody who is arrested for a small amount of marijuana in his pocket and can't make $100 bail and then would die in jail would give people pause to re-examine our marijuana policies," said Democratic Rep. Renny Cushing, a co-sponsor of the decriminalization bill.

Pendleton, a black man, was homeless at the time he was arrested. A 2013 report from the American Civil Liberties Union showed black people in New Hampshire are 2.6 times more likely to be arrested on marijuana possession charges than whites. It also showed that in 2010, New Hampshire spent more than $6.5 million enforcing marijuana possession laws.

"There's a lot of law enforcement resources that are going toward enforcing marijuana possession laws that polls demonstrate New Hampshire citizens don't support," said Devon Chaffee, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Hampshire.

But opponents of decriminalization say doing so would send mixed messages while New Hampshire battles an opioid and heroin addiction crisis.

"It seems crazy to me and counterproductive," said Republican Sen. Jeanie Forrester, who is running for governor.

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Forrester sponsored a bill that removes language calling possession a "class A" misdemeanor, which in theory gives prosecutors the option to reduce it to a violation and keep charges off someone's record. Edwin Kelly, administrative judge for the circuit court system, said many prosecutors already do this. Forrester's bill also ups the fine for a first time offense from $350 to $500, something advocates for full-scale decriminalization say will exacerbate the struggles of poor defendants. The differing views are leading to a legislative kerfuffle that may mean neither bill gets passed.

Both Kelly and attorneys said most people don't face a cash bail when they're picked up for a minor marijuana offense. Between 7,000 and 9,000 drug possession charges are filed annually and the majority deal with marijuana, Kelly said. The state was unable to provide more detailed data.

Pendleton died in his cell at the Valley Street jail in Manchester on March 13, four days after he was incarcerated. As a Burger King employee, he was part of the "Fight for $15" movement advocating for a higher minimum wage. The group organized a rally outside the Valley Street jail to draw attention to his death.

In 2015, the ACLU represented him in two cases — one against the town of Hudson regarding a panhandling arrest and the other against the city of Nashua after Pendleton was arrested and served jail time for violating a verbal no trespass order. Both were settled and Pendleton won monetary awards.

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