Nebraska Sen. Anna Wishart will introduce medical cannabis bill in early 2019

September 24, 2018

LINCOLN — Republican Chris Holbert proudly touts his ranking as one of the most conservative members of the Colorado General Assembly.

While the Senate majority leader still thinks allowing people to buy a high is a bad thing, he holds a different view of medical marijuana. Holbert said he’s seen cannabis significantly improve the lives of patients with debilitating medical conditions.

Of course, Colorado voters passed constitutional amendments to legalize both uses of the drug.

So Holbert offered a bit of advice for his counterparts in Nebraska: Consider putting marijuana in your statute books before voters put it in your Constitution. Doing so would give lawmakers more flexibility to set sensible regulations, address unforeseen problems and save public funds, he argued.

“I’d tell them to do this legislatively, not constitutionally,” he said.

Nebraska State Sen. Anna Wishart says she’s going to give her colleagues that opportunity in early 2019 when she introduces another medical cannabis bill.

While filibusters have extinguished four prior legalization measures in Nebraska, the Lincoln Democrat said she’s working on a new proposal. Although she tried to pass a resolution to put the issue on the ballot earlier this year, Wishart said she’s convinced that a legislative approach would be better for the state.

One of the leading opponents of past medical marijuana proposals in Nebraska says he’s at least willing to consider a new bill.

Sen. Matt Williams, a Republican from Gothenburg, said he still opposes any legalization of marijuana. But he agreed that there could be an advantage to the Legislature taking pre-emptive action on medical cannabis.

One concern, he said, is that a ballot initiative might end up including recreational marijuana as well.

“We can keep saying, ‘Heck no, heck no, heck no!’ But at the end of the day, we could end up with something we really don’t want,” he said.

Lending credence to such concerns is polling this year showing that77 percent of Nebraska voters would support a medical marijuana constitutional amendment. Nearly six out of 10 respondents in the survey identified as Republicans, and the support was spread across urban and rural districts.

In response to the poll results, the Marijuana Policy Project, a national group that has helped organize successful legalization campaigns in other states, said it would probably help lead a medical marijuana effort in Nebraska.

While Nebraska has seen grass-roots, pro-marijuana petition drives before, none has come close to raising the $1 million normally needed to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot. The national group could help generate the funding for a successful petition drive.

So, Nebraska finds itself as one of a handful of states without some type of medical marijuana program.

A total of 31 states and the District of Columbia have adopted comprehensive medical cannabis laws, while an additional 15 states allow the use of oils rich in CBD, a medicinal component of cannabis that doesn’t cause psychoactive effects.

The University of Nebraska Medical Center recently reported that most patients who participated in a two-year clinical trial experienced improvement in their seizure disorders while taking a pharmaceutical drug made of purified CBD. Earlier this year, federal regulators approved the drug for sale.

Gov. Pete Ricketts, who opposes legalization of medical marijuana in Nebraska, was “encouraged” by the UNMC study, said Taylor Gage, the governor’s spokesman.

“Our country already has a process in place through the Food and Drug Administration to determine whether a drug constitutes safe and effective medical treatment,” Gage said.

Meanwhile, voters in four more states will decide marijuana-related measures this year. The list includes Michigan and the red states of Utah, Missouri and North Dakota, where organizers defied predictions and put a recreational marijuana amendment on the ballot.

“If a ballot initiative is brought in Nebraska, there is no doubt in my mind it will pass,” said Wishart, who couldn’t gather the 33 votes to get her proposed constitutional amendment over a filibuster last session.

The November election will bring at least eight new senators to Nebraska’s one-house, 49-member Legislature, so it’s difficult to predict how a new proposal might fare. Wishart said, however, that she has “a lot of work to do” to secure the supermajority support needed to pass a bill.

In Colorado, polling shows that public support for legal marijuana has grown in the years since the ballot initiatives.

Rep. Matt Gray used to prosecute drug dealers and other criminals as an assistant district attorney before he was elected to the Colorado House. So he voted against a bill that would have legalized recreational marijuana.

His views on the recreational issue have changed since it was adopted by voters, in part because Colorado’s system gives the state greater control over the drug. In states like Nebraska, he said, organized crime controls the supply chain.

Colorado voters decided that legal access to marijuana was a “first principle” that belonged in the constitution. Under the constitutional framework, Gray said there’s still space for lawmakers to regulate and set limits.

Colorado’s system isn’t perfect, Gray said, but he wouldn’t support reversing course.

“Especially with medical marijuana, the experience has been a net positive,” he said.

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