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Year after year, Nebraska's conservative lawmakers have rejected measures calling for limited and highly regulated medical marijuana.

They're poised to do it again, but their decision this year could have the unintended consequence of ushering in one of the most unrestricted medical marijuana laws in the country. If so, Nebraska will join a growing number of conservative states with unusually easy marijuana access, all because red-state lawmakers refuse to touch the issue and thereby make way for ballot initiatives.

Shelly Gillen of Bellevue, Nebraska, would like to see medical marijuana legalized in her state. Her son, Will, suffers from seizures and wears a protective helmet. She thinks medical marijuana can help mitigate Will's seizures, but lawmakers in the state have repeatedly defeated efforts to legalize cannabis. (Associated Press/Nati Harnik)

Oklahoma became a vivid example in 2018. Billboards there now display a smiling white-coated doctor offering same-day service for marijuana prescriptions. Idaho, Wyoming, and Mississippi may face marijuana ballot initiatives soon after legislators rejected medical marijuana with tight controls.

Meanwhile, 18 other states, including more liberal Illinois, New York, and Vermont, have legislated restrictions that make legal marijuana harder to get.

“It's a head-scratcher,” said Bryan Boganowski, founder of the Omaha chapter of the pro-marijuana group National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) in Omaha, about the Nebraska Legislature's position. “I have no idea what's going on down in Lincoln.”

Since 2010, legislators have rejected medical marijuana bills three times, even measures that allowed only low levels of the intoxicating active ingredient, THC, and restricted it to creams and oils with a ban on smoking. They refused to approve programs as neighboring states took action, ranging from legalizing recreational marijuana in Colorado to approving highly limited access in Iowa.

Nebraska advocates tried again in 2019, but with a threat: Lawmakers could approve a bill that requires people to get a state-issued registry card, limits the potency of marijuana, allows its use only for certain medical conditions, and lets patients have no more than 8 ounces (227 grams) of marijuana in their home — or supporters would place a measure with almost no restrictions on the ballot.

From the experience in other states, there is general agreement that Nebraska voters would approve such a ballot measure. State Question 788, the ballot measure that passed overwhelmingly in Oklahoma in June 2018, allows any doctor to prescribe marijuana for any health complaint.

Nebraska state Sen. Anna Wishart, who sponsored the legislative bill, LB 110, said she's trying to find a compromise with skeptical lawmakers but gives her measure less than a 30 percent chance of passing.

Opponents, including Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts, say they want nothing to do with marijuana, even if the result is dispensaries opening everywhere selling to anyone claiming a minor ailment.

“It's not my job to make a decision that I think compromises public safety in the state just because of the threat of a ballot initiative,” said state Sen. Matt Williams, a leading opponent of the bill.

Williams said he was willing to legalize cannabidiol (CBD), a chemical compound in marijuana, but not parts of the plant that cause users to be intoxicated. But he said Wishart and legalization advocates are “completely unwilling to discuss that.”

Wishart said some patients need the whole plant because the oil alone doesn't help their medical condition.

Wishart said some patients need the whole plant because the oil alone doesn't help their medical condition. Click To Tweet

Another opponent, state Sen. Curt Friesen, said he's uncomfortable legalizing a substance that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) hasn't approved.

“We're not qualified to do that,” Friesen said. “If the people want to vote to bring in medical marijuana or recreational marijuana, then we'll deal with that.”

The draft Nebraska ballot measure would guarantee a constitutional right to use and grow marijuana if a doctor recommends it with no restrictions on what diseases qualify. It would only ban smoking cannabis in public places. If voters approve it in the 2020 general election, patients would be free to grow an “adequate” supply.

Lawmakers could still try to impose some restrictions after the vote, but such an effort in Oklahoma was dropped after protests from supporters.

Shelley Gillen, whose 17-year-old son, Will, suffers from debilitating seizures, said she's hoping for some resolution soon. “In the long run, having it go to the ballot would probably be more beneficial to more people who are ill,” she said.

Shelley Gillen, whose 17-year-old son, Will, suffers from debilitating seizures, said she's hoping for some resolution soon: “In the long run, having it go to the ballot would probably be more beneficial to more people who are ill.” 

Marijuana-related ballot measures could appear in as many as nine states in the 2020 election, according to the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), a Washington-based group that helped lead successful campaigns in Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, and Utah. All but Utah allow adult-use marijuana; Utahns, despite living in a predominantly Mormon state, approved medical marijuana in 2018. Medical marijuana is already legal in some form in 34 states and the District of Columbia. Ten states and Washington, D.C., have legalized recreational use.

In Montana, the prospect of a ballot drive has prompted lawmakers to call for a formal study into the impact of legalizing the drug for recreational use.

Matthew Schweich, deputy director of the MPP said his group would rather have state legislatures take action so that costly ballot campaigns could be avoided.

“We're not in the business of forcing policies on electorates that don't want them,” he said. “Our purpose is to step in when voters are being ignored.”

— Grant Schulte

Featured Image: Nebraska state Sen. Anna Wishart, testifying during a Jan. 25, 2019, hearing in the Legislature on whether to legalize medical marijuana, is leading the charge to approve a legalization bill in the Statehouse in Lincoln. She faces many opponents in the Legislature, and marijuana legalization could end up being put before voters. (Associated Press file photo/Nati Harnik)



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