Proposed medical marijuana bill debated at emotional hearing

Nebraskans gathered at the Nebraska State Capitol Feb. 9 to debate medical marijuana legalization, which has been debated in the state for years.

Efforts to legalize medical cannabis in Nebraska go back to 2016 when its first bill was presented by former State Sen. Tommy Garrett of Bellevue.

Introduced by State Sen. Anna Wishart of Lincoln, LB 588 would establish medical cannabis dispensaries where certified patients could possess up to 2.5 ounces of marijuana.

Patients with specific conditions, including Parkinson’s disease, cancer, Tourette’s syndrome and chronic pain, would be applicable. A prescriber would have to evaluate a patient to ensure their eligibility for medicinal marijuana use.

It would not allow the smoking of cannabis or for people to grow their own.

Wishart called the legislation “one of the most conservative medical cannabis laws in the country” and said she is willing to narrow the bill further as long as it remains patient-centered.

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

Wishart introduced a similar bill in the previous legislative session but failed to move forward after not having enough voters to overcome a filibuster. So far, Carol Blood, Meghan Hunt, Mike McDonnell, Ben Hansen and Jen Day have cosigned.

The bill would add Nebraska to the list of 37 states that fully legalized medical marijuana. Currently, the state is one of six that have no provisions for medicinal cannabis, as some offer CBD-only options.

Nineteen people spoke in support of the bill, while six spoke in opposition. Three, including a representative for the Nebraska Medical Association, spoke in a neutral capacity.

Supporters of the bill cited evidence of the medical benefits of cannabis for those suffering from certain conditions. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health,  medical marijuana can be helpful in treating epilepsy, nausea associated with chemotherapy and weight loss associated with HIV/AIDs.

Wishart said the Nebraska Medical Association voiced support of the bill and found enough evidence to show that cannabis can provide medical benefits.

For Omaha resident Crista Eggers, the campaign coordinator at Nebraskans for Medical Marijuana group, medical cannabis legalization would mean treatment for her son, Colton, who suffers from intractable epilepsy.

She said she has tried more than 19 different medications, failed to help her son and presented a long list of side effects. Sometimes she was unsure if it was worse that he experienced seizures or the side effects of various drugs, Eggers said.

She said they have tried medicine known to cause liver failure, strokes and suicidal behavior. Eventually, doctors gave her two options: move to a state that has access to legal medical marijuana or choose to stay in-state and work on its legalization.

She chose the latter and worked on a state-wide ballot initiative in 2020, gathering almost 200,000 signatures. After working for years to pass this legislation, Eggers described her dining room table as an office, covered with petitions and county maps.

At night, she said she sits by her son’s bedside, waiting for the next possible seizure.

“I sit before you tired and weary from this fight, and I beg you to look upon the suffering people of this state with compassion and empathy by supporting this bill,” Eggers said.

Critics of the bill discussed its lack of FDA approval as a reason for hesitance.

Nebraska Attorney General Mike Hilgers testified in opposition to the bill on the grounds the state must wait for the federal government to approve cannabis.

As marijuana is a schedule 1 drug, which are defined as drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse by the DEA, Hilgers argued that it would be unconstitutional under the supremacy clause. This states that when federal and state regulations disagree, federal law takes precedence.

Hilgers said he is a “limited government conservative” but that Congress, through the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, has the power to regulate these decisions.

When asked by State Sen. Terrell McKinney of Omaha if he would enforce the federal law if LB588 were to pass, Hilgers said the office of the attorney general has an obligation to enforce constitutional laws.

“It would put us in direct opposition with federal law,” Hilgers said. “Federal law says it’s a crime.”

He said other states with medical cannabis laws are not following federal law, which has not been enforced.

Multiple pharmacists testified in support of the bill, speaking to the benefits that medical cannabis can have on inflicted individuals.

Marcia Mueting, the CEO of the Nebraska Pharmacists Association, cited the organization’s recent survey where most pharmacists, interns and technicians in the state said they would support the use of medical cannabis.

Dr. Amanda McKinney, a physician, testified to the effectiveness of medical cannabis. She specified that the drug is secure, saying that its safety is “unparalleled,” as there has never been a reported cannabis death caused by overdose.

She also discussed that while Delta 8 and CBD products are accessible for Nebraskans, under current law, physicians cannot provide education on cannabis for medical conditions.

“It’s extremely challenging for an average layperson to discern the good from the bad,” McKinney said. “It’s long past time for Nebraska to have a medical cannabis infrastructure in place.”

When asked about addiction, she said that lifetime dependence risk is around 9%, while Alcohol is around 14% and nicotine is 32%. She said cannabis has the least risk of a long-term dependence on most drugs, with no physical addiction and “very little” withdrawal symptoms.

“While almost all hard drug users have used cannabis, most people who use cannabis do not become hard drug users,” McKinney said.

She said cannabis is a “much safer alternative” to alcohol and that the real conversation lies within a cultural stigma.

Col. John Bolduc, superintendent of Nebraska State Patrol, opposed the bill, saying that medical marijuana products would be diverted to the black market, something he saw as police chief in California. He said legalizing any level of production would make it easier for illegal sales.

“We expect the partial legalization of marijuana will increase the burden on the Nebraska state patrol crime lab due to the increase of availability of marijuana, which will require testing for criminal prosecutions across the state,” Bolduc said.

Nicole Hochstein testified in support also on behalf of her son, who was diagnosed with infantile spasms. When her husband’s military career took her out of Nebraska, she made it a priority to move back and raise her kids in the midwestern community following retirement.

She described the multiple brain surgeries her son endured due to his condition, one of which involved removing four parts of his brain. He also had to have a device implanted to shock his brain every 30 seconds.

After going through every medical option, he continues to seize daily. Hochstein said there are no more treatments left for her son in Nebraska.

“This state is taking my son’s life,” Hochstein said.  “Had he been born in any other state, he would have access to a life-saving treatment.”

The Judiciary Committee also received 56 letters regarding the bill, with 48 in support, seven in opposition and one as neutral.

Top photo: State Sen. Anna Wishart of Lincoln on the floor of the legislature. Photo by Zach Wendling/Nebraska News Service.

The Nebraska News Service is produced by the journalism department of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

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