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NH House bill would reduce drug possession to misdemeanor
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A bill moving through the N.H. House would downgrade first-time drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor, a change advocates say would reduce stigma and other barriers that face people struggling with addiction.

But the bill, HB 615, would also change the maximum sentences for various offenses related to distributing drugs, or possessing them with the intent to do so — making them less harsh in many cases, but ramping them up for small amounts of fentanyl. Those provisions have been criticized by law enforcement and by defense lawyers and harm-reduction advocates, respectively.

Sponsored by five Republicans and a Democrat, HB 615 combines two separate bills that passed the House last year but stalled in the Senate. It is scheduled to come before the full House later this week, after passing the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee in February.

Legislators have introduced several bills in recent years to reduce drug possession to a misdemeanor. It’s currently a felony for most illicit drugs.

Because a felony conviction carries such stigma — and can make it harder to get work, housing or an education later on — advocates said the change could remove some of the obstacles that people in recovery face.

Ryan Fowler, who is in long-term recovery from drug addiction, said he faced felony charges when he was using but managed to get alternative sentencing that spared him a felony conviction.

“What would my life be had I gotten that felony? I would have consistently hit barriers to employment and education, and looked at the other opportunity — which is selling drugs,” Fowler, who now works in harm reduction in the Upper Valley region, said in an interview.

In practice, many felony drug possession cases in New Hampshire are ultimately knocked down to misdemeanors through plea bargaining. But defense lawyers say that doesn’t always happen and can depend on the prosecutor.

And even if a case ends as a misdemeanor, starting it at a felony puts more pressure on defendants to accept a plea deal, said Alex Parsons, the managing attorney at the N.H. Public Defender’s Keene office.

“Changing potential penalties changes how negotiations go,” he said. “So as long as potential sentences are high, potential exposure is high, that gives prosecutors more leverage.”

Tom Velardi, the chief prosecutor in Strafford County and head of the N.H. Association of Counties’ affiliate for county attorneys, said his office already resolves some drug cases as misdemeanors.

“In fact, sometimes I get cases referred to me by police who say, ‘We had to make a felony arrest on this, but we really hope you do something else with it,’ ” he said.

But Velardi expressed reservations about changing the law to “de-felonize” possession across the board. He said that would reduce prosecutors’ discretion to, for instance, bring a felony charge against someone who is believed to be selling, but is arrested only for possession.

Weighing sentences

More discussion this year has focused on the bill’s other provisions, which would change the sentences for sales, possession with intent to distribute and related offenses.

The maximum sentences for sales-related charges, which are based on drug quantity, would come down overall — from 30 years to 20 years for selling 5 or more grams of heroin or crack cocaine, for instance.

But the bill would move in the opposite direction for small amounts of fentanyl. Less of the drug would trigger a longer maximum sentence — so a half-gram, rather than 5 grams, would put someone in that top sentencing category with a max of 20 years. Under current law, selling a half-gram would carry a potential maximum of seven years.

In practice, those maximum sentences are rarely imposed. But some lawyers said raising or lowering maximums can still shift actual sentences up or down by influencing plea negotiations.

Rep. Casey Conley, D-Dover, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, told The Sentinel that the broader changes were to align the law with the actual practice of the courts, as well as put some “downward pressure” on sentences.

As for fentanyl, making the penalties tougher than they are for heroin “comports with what we know about the dangerousness and the seriousness of fentanyl in very small quantities,” he said at a recent hearing.

Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, has largely replaced heroin in New Hampshire’s illicit markets, according to a 2019 report from the research group RAND Corp., and has driven the state’s high drug-death totals in recent years.

In its pure form, fentanyl is many times more potent than heroin. Because of that, what’s sold on the street is heavily diluted, or “cut.” One reason it’s so dangerous is that buyers, and even low-level sellers, don’t necessarily know exactly what they’re getting in any given batch, according to the RAND report.

In committee hearings and interviews with The Sentinel, defense lawyers and harm-reduction advocates challenged the logic of penalizing fentanyl more harshly than heroin, saying it doesn’t match the reality on the ground.

People who use drugs, they said, may not draw a distinction between “heroin” and “fentanyl” — it’s essentially sold as one product. That’s reflected in law-enforcement documents, which routinely refer to purchases of “heroin/fentanyl.”

“Fentanyl is being sold in the same quantities as heroin, because that is what people are used to buying,” Tony Naro, a Nashua attorney and former public defender, told a House committee last month. “… If you are a 2-gram-a-day heroin user, you’re gonna continue buying 2 grams a day of fentanyl.”

Naro and others opposed to changing the sentencing on fentanyl noted that sentencing is based on the total weight of what’s sold, including whatever a drug is cut with — so a seller would be sentenced for those 2 grams, not the fraction of it that is pure fentanyl.

“Half a gram as a cutoff is not very much,” said Parsons, of the Keene public defender’s office. “… We don’t see a lot of half-grams being sold. I mean, usually a gram is what people probably buy most frequently.”

He said the “vast majority” of people arrested for selling drugs “are themselves addicted, and they are selling to support their own habit.”

Katherine Cooper, the executive director of the N.H. Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, testified that the group supports most of the bill but opposes the fentanyl provisions, likening them to federal laws that have treated crack cocaine much more harshly than the powder form of the same drug.

The N.H. Association of Chiefs of Police, meanwhile, objected to HB 615 because it lowers the maximum penalties for selling other drugs. Bedford Chief John Bryfonski, the group’s second vice president, said that while few people are actually sentenced to decades behind bars, it’s important to have that option for the most serious drug traffickers.

“By reducing the penalty used to charge drug traffickers, who typically are not drug users, we send the wrong message to drug traffickers whose only aim is to make money while destroying the lives of others,” he said at a hearing last month.

Conley, the bill’s co-sponsor, said the law would still give prosecutors plenty of ways to go after big-time drug dealers.

As for fentanyl, Conley argued the law needs to reflect the drug’s higher potency and the fact that it’s killing so many Granite Staters.

He also noted that the law would still give prosecutors wide latitude to judge each case individually and seek lesser sentences for people who sell small amounts and are addicted themselves.

The bill, Conley said, is a balance between a less punitive approach to addiction and “the fact that the potency of fentanyl is so much stronger than heroin and most other opioids that you find on the street that it just needs to be regulated in a different way.”

Upon being shown where maple syrup comes from, Kathy and Tom Forest’s 4-year-old granddaughter “was too impatient to let the sap drip on her finger to taste,” Kathy wrote in an email. “When I turned around, she had found a much easier way.” This photo was taken at the Forests’ home in Swanzey on March 20.

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Spectrum outage affects customers in NH, Maine
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Spectrum telephone, cable and Internet service was interrupted for hundreds of thousands of customers in New Hampshire and Maine on Monday, following a pair of breaks in the company’s infrastructure, according to a spokeswoman.

Spokeswoman Lara Pritchard said two separate fiber breaks were identified late Monday afternoon that caused outages in the two states. Pritchard said local services were restored at 8 p.m.

“These separate breaks have impacted our redundant path, which normally serves as backup, when a break or damage is incurred in a part of [the] network,” Pritchard said in an earlier email Monday evening.

In an email shortly after 8 p.m., she said the company had rerouted service to get customers connected again as quickly as possible, but that work was ongoing to fix the breaks in the network.

In New Hampshire, the Connecticut-based company’s coverage area includes the local communities of Keene, Richmond, Roxbury, Swanzey and Surry.

Keene officials were among those affected by the outage, which caused the zoning board of adjustment to postpone a hearing that had been scheduled to be held remotely Monday night. Zoning Administrator John Rogers said it will be rescheduled for a later date.

Sentinel staff writer Caleb Symons contributed to this report.

This article has been updated with additional information from Spectrum.

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18% of Cheshire County is fully vaccinated, about average for NH
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A few months after the first COVID-19 shots arrived in Cheshire County, nearly 20 percent of its residents have been fully vaccinated, according to data recently released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

As of Sunday, nearly 14,000 residents — or about 18 percent — had been immunized, new county-wide figures from the federal agency indicate.

Cheshire’s vaccination rate is average compared to other counties throughout the state, with Coos — the state’s smallest county, with about 31,000 people — leading the ranks at 25 percent and Hillsborough — New Hampshire’s largest county with more than 400,000 residents — trailing well behind at 12 percent.

As in Cheshire County, about 18 percent of Sullivan County residents have been fully vaccinated.

Statewide, the data show that about 20 percent of New Hampshire residents have been completely immunized, and 40 percent have received at least one dose, which is the third highest rate in the country. (The N.H. Department of Health and Human Services’ data put those numbers at 18 percent and 35 percent, respectively, as of Saturday.)

The person’s home county was not specified in 20 percent of the state’s vaccinations, according to the CDC’s data.

Tricia Zahn, director of the Greater Monadnock Public Health Network, which is running Keene’s vaccination site on Krif Road, said the CDC’s local vaccination numbers are consistent with what the site is seeing.

As of Monday afternoon, more than 36,000 vaccinations had been administered at the Keene site, according to Zahn, and of those, the vast majority were residents of the network’s coverage area — all of Cheshire County and the 10 westernmost communities in Hillsborough County.

Mark Reynolds, 69, of Antrim, got his second Pfizer vaccination two weeks ago in Keene. Despite some mild flu-like symptoms, he said he took the shot well, and was impressed with those who were staffing the site.

“They were very friendly, very efficient and joked around with us and made us feel like we were the only people there that they were dealing with,” he said. “I was pretty amazed that they could maintain such a positive, friendly attitude.”

Outside of the Krif Road site, Zahn added, another 6,100 people have been vaccinated in the area through long-term care facilities and hospitals. People can also be vaccinated at Walgreens, locally in Keene and Walpole, by making an appointment on the state’s vaccination website. Zahn said she didn’t know how many have done so.

Zahn said certain characteristics of the Monadnock Region and other rural areas may help explain New Hampshire’s high vaccination rate.

“I think it helps being a well-connected yet rural area that allows folks to communicate about the system,” she said.

Three vaccines — made by Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson — were approved for emergency use by the Food and Drug Administration this winter. None of the shots have been approved for people under the age of 16.

New Hampshire first opened up immunization appointments in December for health care workers, first responders and residents of long-term care facilities. Since then, the state has continued to expand vaccine eligibility, and as of last week, any resident 16 or older could register.

Because of this, as well as continued education in the community, Zahn said she expects the number of fully vaccinated residents to rise significantly.

In the past few weeks, the Krif Road site has already seen a dramatic increase in people coming in for shots, she noted, with an average of more than 7,000 weekly.

“I think that number of people being vaccinated will continue to rise,” Zahn said, “... and we’re continuing to roll out vaccines as quickly as we can.”

No end in sight to pandemic housing frenzy, NH real estate agents say

More people from out of state are buying homes in New Hampshire during the pandemic, and prices for those homes are on the rise.

That’s according to buyer data collected by the Better Homes and Gardens The Masiello Group, which sells real estate in New Hampshire, Vermont and Maine. About 35 percent of the group’s clients in New Hampshire and Maine are coming from outside of northern New England.

Chris Masiello, the CEO, says it’s a mixture of clients from large cities and suburbs looking for second homes and others who want to move here permanently.

Masiello predicts this will be more possible as companies allow employees to work from home permanently even after the pandemic is over.

“I think there’s the whole dispersal of the workforce,” he says. “It won’t even be the majority of the workforce, but it will be a subset of the workforce. I think that’s one thing that will continue to drive people to move to a state like New Hampshire.”

According to data from the New Hampshire Association of Realtors, sale prices have jumped 12 percent over the past year. That’s double the increase realtors saw in the strong 2019 market.

Adam Dow, a realtor in Wolfeboro with Keller Williams Lakes and Mountains Realty, is seeing more older couples who may have opted to buy a second home a plane ride away or retire in a city, but are rethinking those plans a year into the pandemic.

And with housing stock in New Hampshire at an all-time low, he doesn’t expect the market to slow down anytime soon.

“When you have twenty people that make an offer on a house, nineteen of them don’t get it,” he says. “So even if even if those numbers are cut in half, we still have way more people looking for the New Hampshire home than are finding them.”

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Two weeks to go
Local schools prepare for full reopening in two weeks
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From rearranging classrooms for adequate physical distancing to adjusting lesson plans, local school district leaders say the next two weeks will be busy as they prepare to resume full in-person instruction April 19.

That’s when Gov. Chris Sununu has ordered all K-12 public schools statewide to hold in-person classes five days a week, a decision he announced last Thursday. Families who are not comfortable sending their children back to the classroom during the COVID-19 pandemic can still opt for remote learning, Sununu added.

Even before the governor’s announcement, though, N.H. School Administrative Unit 29 — which covers Chesterfield, Harrisville, Keene, Marlborough, Marlow, Nelson and Westmoreland — had already begun planning for a full reopening in all of its districts before the end of the academic year, Superintendent Robert Malay said Monday.

“It’s what we’ve been working towards anyway; it’s just accelerated and put more pressure on our buildings and our staff,” Malay said of Sununu’s order.

As of Monday, two SAU 29 districts, Marlborough and Marlow, had returned for full in-person instruction, while the remainder are operating on hybrid schedules that have students in class between two and four days per week, Malay said. Most districts throughout the Monadnock Region have students in classes at least four days per week, and some were in the process of fully reopening before Sununu’s announcement.

For the SAU 29 districts still in hybrid models, including Keene, Malay said the biggest challenge in the coming weeks will be for staff members to adapt their lesson plans from ones designed for hybrid instruction to those more apt for a full complement of in-person students.

“And that takes time and planning to map out what that will look like for the remainder of the school year, which is not uncommon, but we’re going to have to do that in a shorter time frame than we were initially planning to do,” Malay said.

He added that, before Sununu’s order, SAU 29 had been eyeing May 3 — the day students return from a weeklong spring break — as a potential date for fully reopening schools. Without that extra week to prepare for the switch, Malay said, it will be even more difficult for teachers to adjust their plans on top of their current workloads, and for SAU 29 facilities staff to move several hundred pieces of furniture to ensure that students and staff can maintain three feet of distance throughout the day. (The CDC on March 19 lowered its distancing recommendation in schools from six to three feet, so long as other prevention measures like mask-wearing remain in place.)

Physical space within the schools is also the biggest barrier for a return to full in-person classes in the Monadnock Regional School District, Superintendent Lisa Witte told the school board at its March 16 meeting. Witte, who last week said she had no idea Sununu’s announcement was coming and expressed frustration at the surprise, declined Monday to discuss details before the board’s next meeting tonight, when members are expected to discuss reopening plans. But she said the district is “continually discussing ways that we can meet the needs of all students and what resources we can use or shift.”

Witte has said many classrooms in the Monadnock district — which covers Fitzwilliam, Gilsum, Richmond, Roxbury, Swanzey and Troy — could accommodate three feet of physical distancing.

But according to her presentation to the school board, all schools within the district, where students currently attend in-person classes two days a week, have at least one room where it will be difficult to maintain three feet of distancing with all students in class. Additionally, Monadnock Regional Middle/High School in Swanzey Center would need to add an additional lunch period to ensure three feet of distance in the cafeteria, according to the presentation.

Physical distancing is also the top concern for a full reopening in the Fall Mountain Regional School District — which covers Acworth, Alstead, Charlestown, Langdon and Walpole — Superintendent Lori Landry wrote in a message to families and staff posted on the district’s website Friday.

“Our building administrators are identifying [problem] areas that need to be addressed, such as our hallways and cafeterias,” she wrote. “Additional plexiglass barriers are being installed in classrooms and cafeterias to maintain safety. As we did in the fall, outdoor tents will be installed over the next several weeks to provide additional space for classes.”

Landry, who could not be reached for comment Monday, added in her letter that Fall Mountain may need to change its transportation schedules before fully reopening to address the increased number of students on buses. Meanwhile, all of the district’s buses have installed air purifiers, Landry wrote, and their windows will be cracked to increase air circulation.

All of these considerations make for a busy and challenging two weeks before the switch to in-person classes, Malay wrote in a message for families and staff posted on the SAU 29 website Monday afternoon.

“Make no mistake about it, this will be a tremendous effort by everyone involved in order for it to be as successful as possible,” he wrote. “There are many moving parts and details that will need to be addressed along the way that our staff will be working through over the next couple of weeks.”

Despite the tasks that lie ahead, though, Malay said he believes SAU 29 staff members can accomplish them, and all schools can reopen safely on April 19.

“I’m confident that we’re going to get there,” he said. “And I’m confident that when we do, we’ll continue to work on how we can make it better.”