Medical marijuana, election security, religious garments in class, Omaha schools discussed


March 16th, 2017

Dr. Rachel Knox testifies for medical marijuana bill Wednesday (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

Medical marijuana, election security, religious garments in the classroom, and Omaha schools were among subjects discussed in the Nebraska Legislature Wednesday.

Lincoln, NE – The Judiciary Committee heard testimony Wednesday on Sen. Anna Wishart’s proposal to legalize medical marijuana. Dr. Rachel Knox, an Oregon doctor, said it offers an alternative to opioids, which are part of a nationwide epidemic.

“Medicare Part D actually reported that there was a decrease in opioid prescriptions in states that had active medical cannabis laws. They also saw a stark decrease in drugs that treated anxiety, depression, nausea, seizures, sleep disorders and spasticity. The average physician in a medical cannabis state prescribed 1,800 fewer doses of painkillers from 2010-203. It also saved Medicare Part D $165 million across the 17 legal states at that time,” Knox said.

Among others supporting the bill was Dr. Alan Worth, a retired Lincoln physician who said he has MS and has tried three prescription medications.

“One was ineffective, two were controlled substances and I discontinued use of those two because of side effects. But there was a fourth drug, and it was marijuana extract, that I’ve been able to access on a few occasions. That drug was helpful and I did not experience any side effects from it. And so I would ask you: Why would you deny me access to a medicine that reduces my suffering? Why is the remedy 500 miles west of here and not here in Lincoln?” Worth asked.

Medical marijuana is legal in Colorado.

Col. Brad Rice, superintendent of the State Patrol, opposed the bill. Rice said the state patrol opposes any legalization of marijuana, adding that drugs have no place in Nebraska.

“As a state we are already fighting hard to prevent the opioid epidemic from coming to Nebraska; heroin use is increasing nationwide. While LB622 would only allow marijuana to be used for medical purposes, there is a significant risk that medical marijuana would nonetheless be used for recreational purposes. And whether used for medical or recreational purposes, marijuana has led many down the path of addiction,” Rice said.

Dr. Thomas Williams, Nebraska’s chief medical officer, also opposed the bill.

“There are a number of safety concerns related to the use of medical marijuana. Every drug or chemical substance has interaction with other drugs and has side effects, some of which may be detrimental or even life-threatening. Descriptions about the relationship between marijuana and various psychopathologies are abundant in medical literature. Anxiety, dysphoria, negative emotional responses, depression and suicidal ideation are a few,” Williams said, adding “The cause and effect has not been conclusive.”

Sen. Wishart has named the proposal her priority bill, meaning it is likely to be debated by the full Legislature if advanced by the committee.

Also Wednesday, Sen. John Murante called on the federal government to drop its designation of states’ election systems as “critical infrastructure.”

“While this designation may seem logical, as election systems are vital to the security of our country, the designation represents a drastic federal overreach into our elections,” Murante said.

The designation was made under the Obama administration and continued under the Trump administration. The Department of Homeland Security says state participation is voluntary, and the federal government could not access state systems without legal agreements.

But Murante said the federal government appears to have probed the state system in Georgia, looking for vulnerabilities. And he said the designation could mean the federal government could dictate which type of voting machines a state could use.

In legislative debate Wednesday, lawmakers gave second round consideration to a proposal by Sen. Jim Scheer to end the state’s current ban on teachers wearing religious garments in public school classrooms.

The idea was brought to Scheer by a Catholic nun who wanted to teach in Norfolk Public Schools but was told she could not if she wore her habit. Scheer says similar anti-Catholic measures were adopted in 36 states early last century with the support of the Ku Klux Klan. He said they should be repealed to protect teachers’ religious liberty.

The idea was opposed by Sen. Ernie Chambers, who said he wants a strict separation of church and state. Chambers questioned Scheer about how far he would extend religious liberty.

“Do you think that a member of the Ku Klux Klan, who is a member of the Christian Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, should be allowed to teach in a classroom wearing a Klan robe?” Chambers asked.

“Based on what my bill would do, that would be up to the local school district to make that determination. If you’re asking my personal opinion, my personal opinion would be no,” Scheer said.

“Thank you. Members of the Legislature, that’s what I’m talking about. You take care of your own when you’re in the majority. He’s not for religious liberty. He’s for religious liberty as long as it’s what the majority wants,” Chambers said.

With Chambers vowing to engage in extended debate against the bill, Sen. Justin Wayne used the time to criticize members of the Education Committee for their conduct during a hearing on charter schools Tuesday. Wayne said many schools that serve the African-American community in north Omaha are failing, but defenders of public schools would not acknowledge that. He quoted from a text he received after the hearing.

“Do they really think people will want to come back when the entire time on this committee they kept quoting how great (the) Nebraska education system is, while not acknowledging how bad it is for particularly African-American males? It is this type of belief that keeps me from Nebraska and coming back home,” the writer said.

Sen. Adam Morfeld defended his skepticism about charter schools.

“I continue to be skeptical of the privatization of our public school system, because I think that we have excellent public schools. I think that there are schools and places that we can do better,” Morfeld said.

The Education Committee has not yet acted on the charter school bill. The Legislature adjourned for the day without reaching a vote on religious garments.

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