The percentage of supporters and opponents testifying Thursday at a Judiciary Committee hearing on a resolution that seeks to put legalization of medical marijuana on the 2018 ballot closely mirrored results of a statewide survey conducted last year.
About 77 percent of those testifying supported the resolution (LR293CA) brought by Lincoln Sen. Anna Wishart that would allow people in the state to vote on the issue in November, but others opposed it — including two state government officials.
Parents of children with difficult medical conditions and people with persistent pain, who said they could be helped by the drug that is legal in at least 38 states, pleaded with the committee for its support.
But the Nebraska Attorney General’s office came close to threatening a challenge if such a law was passed.
By the time senators had listened to an hour of difficult-to-hear stories about people’s desperation for something to help them or their children, several of the committee members had grown frustrated with the continued opposition from state officials.
Assistant Attorney General Ryan Post said that if LR293CA were passed, it would be illegal by federal law, which would preempt any enabling legislation by senators. Until and unless Congress would modify its clear prohibition, any regulatory attempt by Nebraska to facilitate, promote or license marijuana products, would be illegal.
There were a number of ways, he said, to challenge a state legalization: A criminal defendant’s challenge to a conviction, a civil action by a person who opposed the law, or the attorney general weighing in himself.
Omaha Sen. Bob Krist responded to the threat.
“I wish you’d look internally,” Krist said, “because you tried to buy drugs that were illegal to be put into this country so you could carry out the death penalty. So start with yourself. Look in the mirror.”
The state’s chief medical officer, Thomas Williams, and a doctor, Lincoln anesthesiologist Monica Oldenburg, said they couldn’t support it without more research, assurance about the purity of dosages and better physician knowledge on how to prescribe it, which they don’t learn in medical school.
“Both in its pure form and its metabolized form, cannabinoids are extremely complex molecules,” Williams said.
Lincoln Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks said people were tired of hearing more research was needed. Those studies just weren’t getting done because they are challenging and complex to do.
“We have people who are in actual pain,” she said.
“We know that the large (pharmaceutical companies) are putting up every barrier possible. … It’s sad. And because this has gone on for so long, we’re at this point where the people are saying, ‘Enough. If you won’t move on it we’ll bring a constitutional amendment and we will have people vote.”
Before the opponents spoke, supporters at the hearing had literally begged for the committee to support Wishart’s resolution.
“Medical cannabis is about freedom of choice,” said Lia McDowell-Post, who suffers from Complex Regional Pain Syndrome. “Will you be the people that stand in the way of this freedom, or will you help make it a necessary change? I implore you. I will get on my knees and beg you to put medical cannabis to a vote and allow the people of Nebraska to rise up and have a voice.”
Shelley Gillen, whose son has a rare form of epilepsy, said her family has begged senators for five years to make the drug legal.
“We have heard all of the arguments. It’s a gateway drug. It needs to be FDA approved. It would send a wrong message to our youth. It will get into the hands of the abuser. It’s federally illegal,” she said. “Our family finds all of these arguments to be nothing short of insulting.”
Many of the FDA approved medications her son has been on are gateway drugs themselves, she said, as well as having horrendous side effects. She called on the committee to act quickly.
“Precious lives are at stake,” she said.
Christina Hitz, whose 19-year-old son has intractable epilepsy and was accepted into a University of Nebraska Medical Center study of Epidiolex, a drug derived from a compound found in cannabis.
“The year prior to starting CBD oil, my son had 60 seizures. In 10 months since taking Epidiolex, he’s had three,” she said.
Amy Miller, legal director for ACLU of Nebraska, took a different approach. She testified that Nebraska is third in the country for the most marijuana possession arrests per capita, behind New York and the District of Columbia. Seventy-three percent of drug arrests in the state are for marijuana, she said.
It’s “something that I think is shocking to most people and is a clear explanation why Sen. Wishart’s measure needs to move forward,” she said.
Miller wanted to make sure senators know they are on safe ground with the 10th Amendment to move forward on legalizing medical cannabis. Principles of federalism support states’ rights to legalize cannabis, she said.