Medical Marijuana Will Get Another Chance In Nebraska Legislature

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Katelyn Baker

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Lincoln – Nebraska finds itself in rarefied air when it comes to medical marijuana.

It's one of a handful states – a list that includes South Dakota, Kansas, Indiana and West Virginia – that prohibit all forms of medicinal cannabis. Twenty-eight states offer comprehensive medical marijuana programs while 15 others allow people with certain conditions to use a form of the plant low in THC, the compound that produces the high, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

State Sen. Anna Wishart, a freshman lawmaker from Lincoln, said she will introduce a comprehensive medical marijuana bill this session. The proposal is still being drafted, she said, but it will be similar to one that came within three votes of advancing last year.

On the national front, medical marijuana continued to gain ground in November as ballot initiatives won passage in four states, including politically conservative North Dakota. Voters in four additional states, meanwhile, legalized the drug for recreational use.

An Iowa law allows people with severe seizure disorders to possess cannabidiol, the form of the drug that does not result in a high. But the state doesn't allow what's commonly called hemp oil to be manufactured, and federal law prohibits the oil from being transported across state lines. So in practice, Iowans can't get the drug.

The Des Moines Register has reported that the Iowa Legislature is expected to take up bills this year to expand access to the drug.

In Nebraska, advocates for medical marijuana outside the State Capitol say they will get behind the Nebraska bill, but they didn't sound optimistic. They know the measure likely would need 33 votes to overcome a filibuster and almost certainly would be vetoed if it reached the desk of Gov. Pete Ricketts.

Adding to the uncertainty is the arrival of 17 new senators with no track record on the issue.

"I'm putting more faith in a ballot initiative than a legislative bill," said Shelley Gillen of Bellevue, who has worked for a medical cannabis law on behalf of her 14-year-old son, Will, who suffers dozens of severe seizures daily.

The measure came close last year when 30 of 49 lawmakers voted to end a filibuster that ultimately killed it for the year. That's three votes shy of the supermajority needed to halt the stall tactic, but comfortably more than the 25 votes needed to advance a bill.

Ten of those supporters, however, no longer serve in the one-house Legislature because of term limits or a failed re-election bid. Supporters of the measure will need the help of conservatives if they are to have any chance to reach the 33-vote plateau needed to break a filibuster that awaits the bill if it makes it to the floor.

Sen. Matt Williams of Gothenburg, who led the opposition last year, said his view hasn't changed.

"It sends our state in the wrong direction," Williams said, adding that he is most concerned about keeping the drug out of the hands of children.

This week, Republicans in the officially nonpartisan Legislature voted to elect nearly all conservatives for committee leadership posts. Yet past floor debates have shown that support for medical marijuana cuts across partisan lines, with Republicans casting more than half of the votes for the bill the last two years.

Wishart, the senator who will sponsor the measure, said that during door-to-door campaigning she was surprised by the number of people in her southwest Lincoln district who expressed support for medical marijuana. In many cases, supporters suffer from serious afflictions or have loved ones who do.

"There are people desperate and in need," she said. "I can guarantee you they are in every single senator's district."

Last year's bill would have allowed patients to use the drug in a pill, liquid or vapor that could only be produced by state-licensed manufacturers. The same restrictions would be included in her bill, Wishart said.

While some states allow their residents to grow the plants and smoke the drug, Wishart said her bill would not allow smoking or cultivation of marijuana. The senator said she will work to allay the concerns of her colleagues who might oppose the concept. Wishart, whose husband is a police officer, said she also plans to seek input from law enforcement leaders.

A national organization that has helped legalize both medical and recreational marijuana will track closely how the debate unfolds this year in Nebraska.

The Marijuana Policy Project would prefer to see a bill passed by elected officials rather than have to launch a time-consuming petition drive and advertising campaign that could run into the millions of dollars, said Matt Schweich, the group's director of state campaigns.

He also argued that Nebraska lawmakers need to recognize the national trend and consider whether they want to craft medical marijuana legislation for their constituents or allow advocates and activists to come up with ballot language.

If lawmakers don't act, the national group is "very seriously" considering a ballot initiative in Nebraska in 2018, Schweich said.

"It's going to be a public policy in Nebraska at some time in the future," he said. "I hope that legislators see that."

Opponents often say that medical cannabis is about building a foundation for the subsequent legalization of recreational marijuana. Kevin Sabet, president of an organization called Smart Approaches to Marijuana, said as much in reaction to the statements about Nebraska by the Marijuana Policy Project.

"MPP wants ... to say that a conservative prairie state like Nebraska has accepted marijuana. This is about a press release for a well-financed pot lobbying group, not about the best interests of Nebraskans," he said in an email.

The Marijuana Policy Project does advocate for marijuana to be regulated like alcohol by the states, Schweich said. But that's not the argument it's making in Nebraska.

"We are not blind to political realities in different states," he said. "And different states require different approaches."



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