JAFFREY — Over the course of an hour and a half Sunday afternoon, a grassy hill outside United Church of Jaffrey filled with rows of small, white crosses, each representing someone who died this year in a mass shooting in the U.S.
About 40 people took turns hammering 286 wooden crosses into the grass as somber music played, church bells tolled periodically and area pastors took the microphone to lead the group in prayer. People pinned orange ribbons on shirts for gun-violence awareness.
Rev. Mark Koyama of United Church of Jaffrey opened the memorial service with a few remarks.
“Today we gather to acknowledge death, to honor the dead — not one death, as we usually do in this church, but 286 deaths,” he said.
Data vary on how many people have died this year in mass shootings, depending on definitions of what constitutes a “mass” shooting. The Gun Violence Archive lists 320 mass-shooting deaths so far this year.
Leaning on the power of prayer, Koyama said Sunday’s event will “illustrate to everyone who will witness this act that we are not just a bunch of mumbling old people. For us, prayer is action.”
He later said the intent is to make the matter of mass gun violence visible in a symbolic way that’s difficult to ignore.
“This is a moral issue that is significant enough that I think it needs to be kept in front of us until something is done,” he said.
There are differing opinions on gun control within the congregation, Koyama said, so the church is not making demands or calling for any specific political action. The goal is to remind people to do something rather than nothing, he added.
“This is harnessing the energy of the church. The people of the church were filled with a sense of urgency and that we needed to do something,” he said.
Even the act of hammering the crosses into the ground is a comfort to congregation members who appreciate the physical movement in addition to their prayers.
Koyama pointed out that in mass media, the phrase “thoughts and prayers” is often mocked as being synonymous with ineffectiveness and inaction.
“And so this is a direct kind of attempt to reclaim the notion that prayer is real and it has real meaning in our lives and in our society,” he said.
Stacey Kullgren of Winchester grew up in the Jaffrey church and appreciated the chance to participate in the memorial service.
“They’ve always been a faith community that’s willing to make a stand,” she said of the church.
Now the pastor of First Congregational Church of West Brookfield, Mass., Kullgren said she feels grateful to continue to be a part of the Jaffrey community’s work.
Other area pastors attended, including Susan Grant Rosen of United Church of Winchester. The crosses send a powerful message, she said, adding that she hopes state legislators will visit the church and take the next step.
But while gun violence was the theme of the afternoon, at least one attendee used the memorial service as an a spiritual experience and a time to mourn a loved one.
Since Chris Ordway moved to Jaffrey nearly three years ago, he said, he’s felt an urge to visit the church that he hadn’t explored until Sunday. Almost every time he helped hammer a cross into the hill, Ordway was overcome with emotion — but his grief was personal.
“Honestly I’ve been thinking a lot about my friend Lauren, who I lost, and she was so misunderstood,” he said. “She was transgender and nobody understood her.”
Lauren died in February 2017, Ordway said, and he doesn’t know how. But whether she died by suicide or something else, he said it derived from not being accepted by society.
His friend’s memory weighed heavily on his mind, but Ordway also came to Sunday’s event having survived his third suicide attempt, and felt “reborn,” he said.
“The third time I woke up everything was different, like in a good way,” he said, “like colors, sights, symbols — everything. I see everything.”
The state’s medical marijuana program recently received a failing grade, with nearly every patient not being issued identification cards to get the drug within the required time frame.
The Therapeutic Cannabis Program, started in 2013, aims to protect patients with debilitating medical conditions, as well as their medical providers and designated caregivers, from criminal charges related to marijuana possession and use.
According to state law, the program must approve or deny applications within 15 days of receipt, and must register identification cards within five days of approval.
However, a legislative performance audit conducted in June found 98.4 percent of cards from 2018 weren’t issued within the five days allowed. On average, cards were received in about 18 days.
This is a slight improvement from previous years, with an average of 31.4 days to get a card in 2016 and 29.3 days in 2017.
“Although the program was authorized by the Legislature, it did not initially provide a budget during the development phase, which contributed to the program’s inconsistent operations, ineffective client service, inadequate database and immature management control environment over card issuance,” the audit states.
The program had been borrowing staff from the state Department of Health and Human Services, and as of October 2018, the program had one full-time employee, one part-time employee and one program administrator, Michael Holt, to process applications and take calls.
“There was no money allotted for staffing or a [new] database. It was an unfunded program that we had to build from scratch,” Holt said.
Now, the program, which receives money from patient registry fees and Alternative Treatment Center dues, finally has a decent nest egg saved, which went toward hiring more staff and creating a new database.
Patricia Tilley, deputy director for the state’s Division of Public Health Services, said the program has five staff members specifically dedicated to the program. Three are designated to the registry unit to handle the applications, which Tilley noted may not be enough.
There were 6,480 patients in the program last year, being treated for 7,380 medically-eligible conditions.
Once the new database is installed, aimed at January 2020, Tilley said the program will have a “better understanding” of how many employees they need.
As far as the timeliness of issuing cards, Holt said there was a miscommunication on the time frame.
“The statute talks about a 15-day time period and a five-day time period … the department had interpreted that as meaning we had 20 days to issue a card,” he said.
But the program actually had five days after approval, no matter how long the approval took. For example, the audit states if a person is approved the day after their application is received, they should receive their card in five days from that date. This would equal a seven-day time period.
“Since the audit findings, we did a systematic review of our operations to align all processes with their interpretations and timelines. That’s the work we are currently undergoing,” Holt said.
But the program has been broken from the start, according to Matt Simon, New England political director for the Marijuana Policy Project.
Since medical marijuana was legalized in 2013, with the home-grow option removed, Simon said it has just been a string of delays.
Patients had to wait nearly three years until a state cannabis dispensary opened to utilize the program. Once it opened, there have been these delays in receiving cards, further frustrating patients.
“Any patient who was in a hurry either moved to another state or started fending for themselves one way or another,” Simon said.
One of those was the late Linda Horan, a terminally-ill Alstead woman who fought in court for a registry card to obtain medical marijuana in Maine. Horan, who died in 2016, won her case in 2015, allowing her to receive the card before the New Hampshire dispensaries opened the next year.
And four years later, the problems with the program are still unresolved, Simon said.
“Patients have been saying all along that there is a big delay, and given the law [the department] was tasked with implementing and not being given the tools to do it, not surprisingly it’s been a disappointment,” he explained.
Simon said its passed the point of “transitioning this program into something that will regulate cannabis more comprehensively,” and policy change needs to be enacted.
Advocates agree. There has been a continued push for the home-grow option for these patients, getting both the New Hampshire House and Senate to pass the bill on Aug. 2, but Gov. Chris Sununu vetoed it.
“New Hampshire has reasonable regulations set up to ensure that our Therapeutic Cannabis Program responsibly treats those in need while limiting the diversion of marijuana to the black market and ensuring that products meet public health standards,” Sununu wrote in his veto message.
The House will vote on Sept. 18 to override the veto, which would mark the ninth time it’s passed a home-grow policy.
The Marijuana Policy Project, along with other advocacy groups, has been working since the veto to keep both the House and Senate on board with home-grow.
Without the override, Simon said its a “pretty grim outlook” for patients.
“I’d like to go back in time and pass a better law in 2013, but lacking the time machine, certainly overriding the veto would somewhat right those wrongs,” he said.
MANCHESTER — Over a marathon day of speeches, spin and no shortage of campaign merchandise, Granite State Democrats convened Saturday at Southern New Hampshire University Arena for the annual N.H. Democratic Party Convention.
Those in attendance from Cheshire County’s delegation, by and large, said they are thrilled with the options available in the 2020 field and remain optimistic about beating President Donald Trump next November. The delegation was placed toward the back of the arena floor because of its share of tickets sold.
With 19 presidential candidates speaking during the proceedings — which did not include the usual rule setting by delegates, which was suspended until another quorum — a few contenders’ names came up more frequently than others.
The top three candidates for Keene Democratic organizer JoAnn Fenton, for example, overlapped with the preferences of other local attendees who have yet to endorse: U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker and Kamala Harris.
Booker and Warren, in particular, were favorites among the Monadnock Region die-hards in attendance, with organizers like Fenton citing their strong ground game and close attention paid to local Democrats.
Fenton, who said she is not ready to endorse anyone yet, quipped that she faces a new conundrum, given the size of the field.
“I have never had this problem before,” Fenton chuckled. “I have always known who I was voting for, and it’s such a dilemma because they’re all so good.”
State Sen. Jay V. Kahn of Keene told The Sentinel his favorites outside of the so-called top tier are Booker and U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, both of whom “present a good vision for our country, but also our state,” he said.
Jim Tetreault of Winchester, who was in attendance in his capacity as a delegate for the party — not as Winchester town clerk, a nonpartisan position — said he hadn’t made up his mind yet, but is most strongly considering South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Booker.
“It’s exciting to hear all of the candidates, and again, we have so many great candidates that it’s hard to make a decision,” Tetreault said.
Others, like state Rep. William A. Pearson of Keene, kept their cards closer to the chest and would not give a short list of favored presidential hopefuls.
Former state senator and gubernatorial nominee Molly Kelly of Harrisville was also coy, saying “I feel that my role is to really welcome every candidate and to make sure that everyone gets an opportunity.”
Kelly, who served for a decade in the state Senate as Kahn’s predecessor, added that she has thought “very seriously” about running for governor again over the summer, and expects to make a decision this fall.
Another potential gubernatorial candidate, Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky of Concord, declined to make his candidacy official during his remarks on stage, instead promoting his exploratory committee and adding that a decision will come in about six weeks.
Meanwhile, the only declared candidate to challenge Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, N.H. Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes, was greeting voters around the convention in his new orange-and-blue campaign T-shirt.
Sununu was the subject of criticism from several national candidates on stage.
Warren called Sununu “Governor Veto,” while Kamala Harris said that Sununu’s record number of vetoes on bills from the new Democratic majorities in the Legislature are “not how leaders lead.”
Sununu’s spokesman, Ben Vihstadt, responded to Harris’ quip tweeted by a Sentinel reporter:
“A tradition unlike any other: mid-to-low-tier Democratic candidates attacking New Hampshire’s most popular elected official in an effort to score cheap points with the base on issues said-candidate knows nothing about,” Vihstadt wrote. “Glad to see you supporting an income tax in N.H.”
The Sununu pile-on caught the attention of local leaders like Kahn.
“The national as well as the state reaction to the vetoes by Governor Sununu was another takeaway,” Kahn said afterward.
Perhaps the climax of the day came with back-to-back speeches from Warren and her longtime friend U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
In a Sentinel interview with the Green Mountain State independent in his campaign’s box suite, Sanders was noticeably distracted as Warren took the stage to thunderous applause, which was boosted by inflatable “thunder sticks” that prolonged the ovation to nearly two minutes.
As supporters cheered on Warren, Sanders was answering questions on foreign policy after giving a rousing speech of his own.
“So bottom line here is, I believe that we need a foreign policy which is based on human rights and democracy; not support of authoritarian governments, not intervention in countries all over the world,” Sanders said as he took a lingering glance over his shoulder at Warren taking the stage.
Asked about the distinction between his supporters and Warren’s, and whether that kind of fervent support would have been possible had Trump not won in 2016, Sanders said: “The answer is, I don’t know, and I don’t want to speculate. All I can tell you is, I’m proud that we have well over a million volunteers in this campaign, that as we speak, hundreds of people right here in Manchester New Hampshire are out knocking on doors, that we have received more individual contributions — small donors, small donations, low donors, low donations, low income donations — from, you know, people all over America. So I’m proud of the grassroots base that we have, and I think that’s how we’re gonna win this.”
The applause for Warren continued after Sanders finished his answer.
Sporting newly printed “liberty green” T-shirts — modeled after New York’s famous statue — Warren supporters came out in droves and made themselves loud even before the thunder sticks came out.
Two Keene-based Warren organizers, Hillary Ballantine and Alycia Barron, said they have been knocking on doors for wees in their home of the Elm City, as well as the surrounding towns of Marlborough, Swanzey and Nelson, with places like Harrisville on the horizon.
“Everyone seems so surprised as to how personable [Warren] is, and she’s just so friendly and so upbeat all the time, and [Monadnock Region voters] are just so surprised to see that,” Ballantine said. “I’ve never heard a complaint.”
“I second that,” Barron chimed in.
For longtime organizers like Fenton, the energy behind Warren, coupled with her campaign’s ground game in the Monadnock Region and across the Granite State, was made more palpable at Saturday’s convention.
Despite his lower standing in the polls, Cory Booker is in the same league, according to Fenton.
“She has a really good team on the ground, and Cory Booker does, too. I mean, I think those two — it seems to me, from my experience — that they have the best organized teams,” Fenton said. “What I love about them: They’ve been doing local projects since they got here in May.”
Even with 157 days until the first-in-the-nation primary, Fenton said “the energy in the room is just contagious.”
“It really makes you realize — it’s a cliché — but Democracy isn’t a spectator sport,” she said. “You come here, and it just energizes you to go out and do the work you have to do.”