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Injured vet, who would rather return to war than narcotics, among those pushing for medical marijuana

December 29, 2018

LINCOLN — Ben Marksmeier would rather return to war than have to go back on narcotic pain medications.

The Fremont veteran says this even after a roadside bomb in Iraq claimed part of his right leg, mangled his left leg, shot shrapnel throughout his lower body and left him with unrelenting pain.

The same 2006 bomb killed Joshua Ford, a fellow Nebraska Army National Guard member from Pender.

“To stay on hard narcotics your whole life, it’s a creepy thing,” Marksmeier said.

He found an alternative in medical cannabis, a solution that has allowed him to function for the past decade in his construction contracting and custom woodworking business and as a father.

Marksmeier’s solution would be legal in 33 states. An additional 14, including Iowa, allow medical use of a cannabis product called cannabidiol, or CBD, which has little tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the high-inducing compound in the plant.

Nebraska remains one of three states that prohibit medical cannabis in all forms.

State lawmakers and cannabis advocates expect renewed efforts to change Nebraska law during the legislative session that starts Jan. 9.

But those efforts face adamant opposition from Gov. Pete Ricketts and Attorney General Doug Peterson and misgivings by many state senators.

Ricketts has called cannabis a “dangerous drug” and argued that it should go through the federal Food and Drug Administration approval process used for other medications.

“Approval of medical drugs outside this process would expose our communities and public health to great risk,” he said.

But State Sen. Anna Wishart of Lincoln argued that “sick and suffering” Nebraskans should have access to medical cannabis, like people in other states. She said stories like Marksmeier’s and research on other states’ experiences convinced her of the need.

“It was very compelling,” she said. “It just makes sense to me.”

Wishart sponsored medical cannabis legislation in the last two legislative sessions. One bill proposed a strictly regulated system of producers and dispensers. The other was a proposed constitutional amendment that would have given Nebraskans the right to use medical cannabis.

For 2019, she said she plans to introduce a comprehensive medical cannabis bill.

Although she is still working on details, the legislation would legalize multiple forms of medical cannabis, including products with varying levels of CBD and THC. It also would allow patients to grow limited numbers of plants, to help ensure affordability.

“It is a bill that ensures the best form of access for people,” Wishart said.

At the same time, however, she and Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln have launched a petition effort to legalize medical cannabis.

Nebraskans for Sensible Marijuana Laws aims to put a proposed constitutional amendment before voters on the 2020 ballot, with help from the national Marijuana Policy Project. The proposal has yet to be drafted.

Wishart said she would prefer that lawmakers pass legalization legislation so the state can regulate its use. She called the petition a “Plan B” in case her legislation fails.

Another option would be legislation legalizing only CBD products.

Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha has said he will offer a bill to legalize hemp and hemp products, including CBD products. By definition, hemp is a type of cannabis plant with less than 0.3 percent THC.

The newly approved 2018 farm bill made it legal under federal law to grow and sell hemp. But states still may regulate cultivation, meaning that hemp would remain illegal in Nebraska without legislative action.

Opponents of medical cannabis may find a CBD-only bill more palatable than broader legislation.

Sen. Matt Williams of Gothenburg, for one, said he would be willing to consider that kind of option, noting that products low in THC would not create a drugged driving problem. He remains opposed to broader legislation, such as Wishart is planning.

Williams said Nebraska lawmakers may need to look at new ideas, given the number of states with medical cannabis and the pressures within the state for action. Officials from other states have warned him that legislation would be better than a broad petition measure.

“I think we as a Legislature need to be open to thinking and maybe even acting,” he said.

But he expressed skepticism about the chances of any legislation finding enough votes to pass, let alone overcome a likely gubernatorial veto. Ricketts and Peterson oppose the legalization of CBD products, while advocates for medical cannabis want more than CBD to be legalized.

David Swarts of Palmyra, a board member of Nebraska Families 4 Medical Cannabis, said different types of medical cannabis work for different patients and different conditions. Products need to offer varying levels of THC and CBD, as well as be available in varying forms, such as pills, patches, suppositories, lotions and liquids for vaping.

He worries that a compromise bill would be too limited and would hurt the chances of the petition drive.

Still, he said legislation would make medical cannabis available to people sooner than a petition drive. That’s why he and other advocates will be back before the Legislature in 2019.

And it’s why Marksmeier is telling his story again, about how he left the hospital with prescriptions for Oxycontin, gabapentin and methadone, along with yet another drug to use when the others could not control the pain.

He had to have those pills, he said, but he hated the changes they made in his brain and his personality. Still, he initially refused to try medical cannabis when a buddy suggested it. Then he started doing some research and changed his mind.

“In a week, I was off all my pain pills,” Marksmeier said. “I not only got off those, but I was comfortable. It astounded me.

“That’s why I fight for people to use it.”

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