Whiteclay relicensing denied; senators debate medical marijuana, lethal injection drug supplier secrecy


April 20th, 2017

Nebraska Liquor Control Commission discusses Whiteclay (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

The Nebraska Liquor Control Commission voted Wednesday to deny re-licensing to four controversial beer stores in Whiteclay, Nebraska. And the Legislature debated whether medical marijuana should be legalized, and whether the suppliers of lethal injection drugs should have their identities kept secret.

The Nebraska Liquor Control Commission’s vote came after decades of agitation to close four beer stores in Whiteclay, Nebraska. That’s a tiny village bordering on South Dakota where millions of cans of beer a year are sold, mostly to residents of the nearby Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, where alcohol is banned but alcohol problems are rampant.

Activists cheered as Commissioners Robert Batt, Janice Wiebusch and Bruce Bailey cast their votes after discussing a lack of law enforcement and other problems in Whiteclay.Afterwards, Frank LaMere, a Winnebago tribal member who has fought for years shut the stores, said it was a start.

“Now the work begins to restore the people that we’ve taken so much from. Today was a victory for caring Nebraskans and the Oglala Lakota people,” LaMere said.

Commission chairman Batt expanded on the challenges facing the Oglala Sioux tribe on its reservation. “This is a much more complicated issue than the four stores. The problem is we still have an 80 percent alcoholism rate. We have a 35 percent fetal alcohol rate.  These are issues that still need to be addressed,” Batt said.

The stores current licenses expire April 30. Their lawyer, Andrew Snyder, said they will appeal the commission’s decision in court, and Batt said it will be up to the judge to decide if they can continue to operate while the appeal is pending.

In the Legislature Wednesday, lawmakers debated Sen. Anna Wishart’s  proposal to legalize medical marijuana. Wishart said many studies have shown marijuana’s legal benefits, and quoted from a January, 2107 review by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine of research on the subject.

“One of the therapeutic uses of cannabis and cannabinoids is to treat chronic pain in adults. The committee found evidence to support that patients who were treated with cannabis or cannabinoids were more likely to experience a significant reduction in pain symptoms,” Wishart said.

Supporters pointed to stories of how the drug has helped people suffering from epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, and the aftereffects of chemotherapy, and said it was preferable to opioids because it is not addictive.

Opponents like Sen. Mike Hilgers said the Legislature should not get involved in something that should be governed by the Food and Drug Adminstration.

“Colleagues, we have a process to determine what types of drugs should be available for public consumption. That process is through the FDA. They have the scientists, they have the individuals in place, the expertise to analyze these questions. This Legislature, as high in regard as I hold all of you, we are not equipped to make this type of clinical decision. We just aren’t,” Hilgers said.

Opponents also said that in the 29 other states that have legalized medical marijuana, those efforts have been followed by legalization or attempted legalization of recreational marijuana.

After two hours of debate, lawmakers moved on to other subjects, leaving Wishart to show she has enough votes to overcome a filibuster for the bill to be scheduled for further debate. Wishart said she would work on it, but said otherwise, the bill would still be alive next year. She also said there are initiatives underway to put both medical and recreational marijuana on the 2018 ballot, adding that both supporters and opponents in other states said it was better for the Legislature to pass a law.

And the Legislature also debated Sen. John Kuehn’s proposal to  exempt the suppliers of lethal injection drugs from the state’s public records law.

In debate Wednesday, Kuehn argued there is no compelling reason to make the names public.

“If all other information including the drug, its composition and its analysis can be provided to the defense and to the public, to provide oversight and scrutiny and the integrity of the compound and the process, what value is the name?” Kuehn asked. “The identity provides no material value to the defense or to the public, and certainly does not justify harassment, retaliation of a private citizen.”

Sen. Ernie Chambers led opposition to the bill.

“This bill that Sen. Kuehn brought is designed to deprive the public of information it ought to have about how its government is carrying out the most solemn, the most consequential act that a government can perform,” Chambers said.

Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks said transparency about suppliers is crucial.

“There were at least three botched executions in Ohio, Arkansas, Oklahoma. It raised everyone’s concern and heightened our alarm and disgust of state executions, and the certainty and determination that we need to be watching carefully what our state is doing,” Pansing Brooks said.

Hilgers argued transparency was counterproductive.

“Ensuring the quality of the drugs is an important part of the process and when we allow, when we have the public disclosure, what happens is it makes it harder and harder to find and procure the drugs from reputable sources – from high quality sources,” he said.

After three hours of debate, lawmakers adjourned without reaching a vote on the bill. Kuehn said he thinks he has enough votes to overcome a filibuster, and would work to have further debate scheduled this year.

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