In Nebraska, Medical Cannabis Debate Heats Up Again

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February 6th, 2019

Ten years ago, just 13 states had legalized medical cannabis. Now, as we approach a new decade, that number has more than doubled.

In fact, just three states have not legalized medical cannabis in some form. One of them is Nebraska.

State Senator Anna Wishart hopes to change that soon with a bill she introduced last month in the Legislature, which would legalize medical cannabis on a statutory level.

Wishart: If you are somebody who has a severe ailment to which you think cannabis would be helpful, you would go through a doctor and you and the doctor will decide whether this is a tool you should try. You’ll get a medical card, and we will have a very regulated producer, processer, and dispensary system, and you will be able to purchase a medical product through that system.

If that fails, as other bills have in the past, a second option is available: Nebraska voters could decide to legalize medical cannabis in 2020 should a ballot initiative supported by Wishart and others gain enough signatures. Rather than becoming statutory law, an initiative would directly amend the state constitution.

Wishart says there are pros and cons to both tactics. Recent initiatives like Medicaid expansion, for example, were successful. One advantage of legislation over an initiative, however, is time.

Wishart: If we pass it this year, we would be able to get a system up and running sooner than if we had to wait for the 2020 ballot initiative. There are a lot of very sick people who need access to this, so it would be great if we could do something sooner rather than later.

Proponents of medical cannabis say that the substance could go a long way in treating ailments like chronic pain and seizures. But opponents, including Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson, warn of several potential pitfalls that come with cannabis use.

Peterson: There’s some real potential harm that can be caused by marijuana that was underrepresented by those in the industry. One of the greatest concerns I have is for adolescents and mental health issues. We lose a generation of young people who are going to be exposed to some of the highest THC levels ever seen and regular use of that in a developing adolescent mind–that’s a serious health issue.

Impaired drivers, a rise in violent crime in states with legalized recreational marijuana, and proliferation of high-potency products on the black market are also among Peterson’s concerns.

Peterson: This is not ‘70s pot, this is not just sitting around listening to Jerry Garcia and having mellow times with your friends. We’re actually talking about some pretty serious stuff, most importantly that’s going to affect our young culture.

The Attorney General believes the goal for the cannabis industry, which he thinks is behind the medical effort, is eventual recreational legalization in the state.

Peterson: Who wins in this type of legislation? Well, the impairment industry wins. They stand to do quite well if they can open up another market. This industry is going toward full-scale all-out marijuana in Nebraska and they will start with medical marijuana.

Wishart rejects claims that the medical cannabis effort is industry-driven.

Wishart: The people who have been working on this issue with me for five years are Nebraskans. They are families with kids who are sick, or people who have cancer. They are veterans, people with multiple sclerosis. They are the people behind this initiative and they are the people that are going to benefit from this initiative.

Wishart’s bill, LB110, is currently being considered by the Judiciary Committee after a hearing Jan. 25 drew people from both sides of the issue to speak out.

Should that legislation fail, the fate of medical cannabis in Nebraska—at least for the near future—may be up to the voters next year.

UPDATE: Following the submission of this story, Nebraskans for Sensible Marijuana Laws announced they had submitted the proposed ballot initiative language to the Nebraska Secretary of State. Once that language is reviewed, signature-gathering can begin. The petition drive will have to gather upwards of 130,000 signatures before medical cannabis can be placed on the 2020 ballot.

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