Nebraska Medical Marijuana Legalization Bill Meets Resistance

A bill to legalize and tightly regulate medical marijuana hit a wall of resistance in the Nebraska Legislature on May 12, even though some opponents acknowledged that rejecting it will pave the way for a much less restrictive ballot measure that voters would likely to approve.

Opponents mounted a filibuster to try to block the measure during a debate.

Supporters said the bill would give Nebraska one of the nation’s most conservative medical marijuana laws and warned that they would take the issue to voters if lawmakers reject it as they’ve done with similar measures for years. Medical marijuana ballot drives have been overwhelmingly successful in even the most conservative states, and it’s widely believed that Nebraska would see the same result.

“No amount of money or opposition is going to silence the people of Nebraska on this issue,” said Lincoln Sen. Anna Wishart, the bill’s main sponsor.

Wishart said she introduced the bill to give lawmakers “one last chance” to approve something that they can control before backers take the matter to voters in 2022. She said her bill is so watered down from previous versions that she’s gotten pushback from legalization advocates and people who would be excluded from getting the drug.

“It’s time to accept the fact that this is the last train out of town if you want to regulate this,” said another supporter, Sen. Steve Lathrop, of Omaha.

The latest version of the bill would legalize the drug for medical uses, but only for 17 diseases and ailments, including cancer, glaucoma and post traumatic stress disorder. Smokable marijuana would remain illegal, and the state would limit the number of dispensaries and require doctors to get extra training before they could recommend it to patients. Patients would be barred from growing their own supply or possessing more than 2.5 grams at once, and those who violate the law would be permanently disqualified from the program.

By contrast, activists are preparing a ballot measure that would guarantee a constitutional right to use marijuana for medical reasons, with no other restrictions. Supporters easily qualified the issue for the ballot in 2020 — collecting 196,000 signatures amid the coronavirus pandemic — but the Nebraska Supreme Court blocked it on a technicality that supporters said they’ve since fixed.

Opponents argue that marijuana is still illegal under federal law, even though most other states allow some form of public access. Others view it as a slippery slope toward legalization for recreational use and say they are worried about the impact on public health. Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts is fervently opposed as well.

“All of this to me is a gateway,” said Sen. Joni Albrecht, of Thurston. “I’m not going to stand here and develop a policy when I just don’t know what it’s going to do to people.”

Sen. Curt Friesen, of Henderson, said he believes voters would approve a legalization measure if it goes to the ballot. But he said he doesn’t think state lawmakers are qualified to decide whether it’s safe for medical use.

“I think people need to be educated as to what the dangers are,” he said.

Sen. Matt Williams, of Gothenburg, said he doesn’t doubt public opinion polls that show strong statewide support for legalization, but his constituents have largely told them that they’re opposed.

“In my district, I’ve been sent a clear message,” he said.

Sen. John Lowe, of Kearney, said he had “grave concerns” about legalization and noted that the drug is more potent now than in the past. He asserted that heavy users often face long-term health consequences, and said he was worried about people driving impaired.

The statements carried little weight with some supporters, who accused of opponents of making unserious arguments and not addressing the specific merits of the bill. Sen. Megan Hunt, of Omaha, said lawmakers were having “a 1992 level discussion” that didn’t acknowledge the national movement toward legalization.

“We aren’t starting from a serious premise,” she said, adding that she has tried marijuana before, “because I’m 35 and I’m normal.”