Marijuana bill palooza in the Unicameral leads with medical push

LINCOLN — Nebraskans who want to legalize medical marijuana testified Thursday for the latest bill by State Sen. Anna Wishart pressing the Legislature to act.

Wishart, advocating for Legislative Bill 588, acknowledged the growing public impatience with a process that has stalled previous medical marijuana bills in the Legislature under pressure from former Gov. Pete Ricketts and his allies.

Man smoking marijuana
A man smokes licensed medicinal marijuana in Berlin, Germany. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

“I’ve spent the past six years going across the state, and you would be hard-pressed to find somebody who would not benefit or would not know somebody who would benefit (from the bill),” Wishart said. “We will go back to the ballot if this fails.”

Hers was the first of three marijuana-related bills that had hearings Thursday before the Judiciary Committee. The others, by State Sens. Terrell McKinney and Justin Wayne of Omaha, would go farther — decriminalizing marijuana possession and setting up a framework for adults to grow and sell it.

Six stores

Wishart’s LB 588 would legalize medical marijuana to treat a specific list of illnesses and medical conditions, including chronic pain, brain injuries, seizures, autism, cancer, Parkinson’s disease, Crohn’s disease and PTSD.

It would allow for six medical cannabis stores, three per congressional district, and all would have to contract with a registered Nebraska pharmacist, she said.

Most testifiers backed the bill, including Sheri Lawlor, whose 30-year-old daughter, Brooke, has epilepsy. Sheri Lawlor described the daily routine of watching to make sure Brooke doesn’t “drop like a tree in the forest” from her wheelchair, wearing a helmet.

Anna Wishart
State Sen. Anna Wishart of Lincoln (courtesy of the Unicameral Information Office)

“She is one of the children that only has a brain surgery choice left,” said Lawlor, whose daughter takes 405 pills a month. “No other medicines we could even try. What parent wants to cut up their child’s brain?”

Christa Eggers, who helped organize two petition drives to let voters decide on medical marijuana, spoke about her 8-year-old son, Colton. She said she doesn’t know which is worse, the seizures he has or the consequences of the medicines he’s prescribed.

‘We won’t stop’

She said lawmakers who think this issue will go away if they punt again and don’t pass it are misjudging the determination of parents. She said they don’t want to wait for the federal government to act. They want help for their kids.

“We will go to the ballot in 2024, a presidential election year, and we will have something that the people will enact,” she said. “You have my word. We won’t stop.”

In all, 48 people wrote letters in support of LB 588, including seven who oppose the legislation and one neutral letter.

My goal is that no family has to flee our state to get access to medical cannabis for themselves or a loved one.

– State Sen. Anna Wishart of Lincoln

The handful of opponents who testified against LB 588 included new Nebraska Attorney General Mike Hilgers and Lancaster County Attorney Pat Condon. Hilgers argued the legal principle of federal supremacy on issues when federal and state law conflict.

He said he had “great empathy” for the families seeking answers for their children’s illnesses but said he would have a hard time as attorney general defending LB 588, knowing that federal law treats marijuana as a Schedule I controlled substance.

“Any bill that purports to allow the use of marijuana puts us in conflict and would therefore be unconstitutional,” he said.

Governor weighs in

Condon said the energy that families and proponents of medical marijuana have put toward pursuing a change in state law could be redirected toward getting Congress or the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to change how it classifies marijuana.

Nebraska Attorney General Mike Hilgers argues against medical marijuana bill. (Aaron Sanderford/Nebraska Examiner)

Col. John Bolduc of the Nebraska State Patrol argued that his experience in California when that state legalized marijuana for medicinal purposes tells him much of the marijuana grown for medicinal purposes will end up on the black market.

“Because of demand and potential profit, decriminalizing makes this likely,” he said.

Gov. Jim Pillen, while not as outspoken in his opposition as his predecessor, opposes LB 588 as well. He did not testify, but Pillen spokesman John Gage said “the governor believes (medical marijuana) needs to go through the FDA process.”

Dr. Amanda McKinney, a physician who teaches at Bellevue University, testified about the safety record cannabis has compared to drugs already approved by the FDA.

She said she knows of no record of someone dying of medical cannabis, but she pointed to more than 10,000 deaths from 17 FDA-approved drugs used in situations that she said cannabis could have helped.

Silence not option

Wishart and several testifiers said parents aren’t willing to wait for the federal government to act. She said proponents have gathered nearly 400,000 signatures from Nebraskans who back the change.

“My goal is that no family has to flee our state to get access to medical cannabis for themselves or a loved one,” she said. “I know for a fact that the people in this room and thousands of people who have signed petitions are not going to be silent.”

State Sen. Terrell McKinney of Omaha (Courtesy of Craig Chandler, University Communication)

The afternoon session before the Judiciary Committee merged the public hearings for the cannabis-related Legislative Bills 22 and 634.

LB 22 — introduced by Wayne and cosponsored by Sens. Megan Hunt of Omaha and Jane Raybould and Danielle Conrad of Lincoln — seeks to decriminalize the use and possession of marijuana.

LB 634 — introduced by McKinney and cosponsored by Hunt — proposes a framework for how Nebraskans over the age of 20 could grow, sell, distribute, possess and use cannabis.

Also included in the 161-page bill is “clean slate relief” that would allow qualified cannabis offenders to get past use and possession convictions removed from their criminal record.

Racism

Much of what is driving McKinney and Wayne, they said, is underlying racism and disproportionate harm that cannabis prohibition has on Blacks and people of color.

“Marijuana laws … were enacted because of racism and have affected black, brown, native communities the most,” McKinney said. “You see that in our prison populations.”

As with alcohol and painkillers, Wayne said that personal responsibility should be applied to marijuana.

Sen. Justin Wayne
State Sen. Justin Wayne (Rebecca S. Gratz for the Nebraska Examiner)

His bill, he said, is intended to prompt discussion about decriminalizing marijuana. “What that looks like going forward is another conversation around LB 634.”

Among those who testified was Hobert Rupe, executive director of the Nebraska Liquor Control Commission. He said his group took no position other than to say that if any regulatory agency were required, duties should go to the already established State Liquor Commission.

Rupe — noting that McKinney’s proposal would create a three-commissioner board with an executive director — said the Liquor Commission for years already has handled taxes, penalties and oversight related to alcohol.

Bootleggers, Budweiser

In addition, Rupe said the body had done the “groundwork” in anticipation of cannabis legalization.

Corey O’Brien of the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office testified in opposition, calling the bills wrong and unconstitutional.

O’Brien contended that the “black market” will “expand and not contract as some of the advocates have predicted.”

David Burr demonstrates removing leaves on marijuana plants
David Burr demonstrates removing leaves on marijuana plants to allow more light for growth at a Las Vegas marijuana-growing facility. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

To that, McKinney said, he was not promising an elimination of illegal trading. But he added: “Bootleggers are not undercutting Budweiser. It’s just not happening.”

Maggie Ballard of Heartland Family Service said her nonprofit is opposed to both bills, though she said it would support looking at reducing fines.

She said she did not see the bill moving to ‘‘undo systemic racism.”

Of LB 634, she said it “would not reduce prison population … or prevent the courts from sentencing with prejudice.”

Warning labels

Mary Hilton, who identified herself as a mom and concerned citizen, thought the part of LB 634 pertaining to warning labels was most honest and telling.

Among the risks to be cited on cannabis products: “intoxicating effects,” “may be habit forming and addictive,” “impairs concentration … judgment.”

Hilton said she believes marijuana legalization would negatively affect Nebraska culture.

(Carol Yepes/Getty Images)

In follow up remarks, McKinney told the group that he had used cannabis before and today has two college degrees, is a state lawmaker and is in law school. “I think my brain development is fine,” he said.

“We should not jump to the conclusion that dispensaries are crime-generating hot spots,” McKinney said. “We can find a common ground between safety and access to cannabis through the regulation of these markets.”

The Judiciary Committee took no action Thursday on whether to advance any of the bills to full legislative debate.

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