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Medical marijuana group prepares to gather signatures for pair of ballot initiatives

Medical marijuana group prepares to gather signatures for pair of ballot initiatives

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At the beginning of the pandemic the legal cannabis industry was disrupted but by the end of 2020 the industry saw record sales of $17.5 billion. Veuer’s Johana Restrepo has more.

A group in Nebraska is preparing to gather signatures for a pair of ballot initiatives to legalize medical cannabis.

The group, Nebraskans for Medical Marijuana, announced on Wednesday that it recently filed drafts of its two measures. If it gathers enough signatures by a July deadline, voters will weigh in on both next November.

State Sen. Anna Wishart, one of two legislators involved in the effort, said one of the petitions will relate to protecting patients’ rights to have access to cannabis through a doctor’s recommendation. The other, she said, would set up a regulated, private industry to produce cannabis for the patients who qualify under the first initiative.

“It’s heartbreaking and senseless that politicians are standing in the way of families and patients who desperately need safe, legal access to medical cannabis,” Sen. Adam Morfeld, the other state senator involved in the effort, said in a prepared statement. “But we will not stop fighting for them. We hope that every Nebraskan will stand with us and help our campaign succeed by getting involved and supporting the effort however they can.”

The same group unsuccessfully attempted to get a medical marijuana initiative on the November 2020 ballot. Though it surpassed the required number of signatures, that initiative was disqualified by the State Supreme Court, which ruled that it contained more than one subject.

In October of last year, the group submitted petition language for a simple constitutional amendment to give Nebraskans “the right to cannabis in all its forms for medical purposes.” But after a bill sponsored by Wishart to legalize cannabis for medical use narrowly failed during the 2021 legislative session, the group reconsidered, the Lincoln Journal Star reported.

This time around, both measures will be aimed at changing state law, Wishart said, rather than the state constitution. While that was a tough decision, she said the group believes this route has a better chance of overcoming legal challenges.

The group worked with legal experts in cannabis law, listened closely to what the five State Supreme Court justices who ruled against the 2020 initiative said and looked to the example of a successful effort to expand gambling in the state, Wishart said. After several failed attempts to expand gambling over the years, voters in 2020 passed a trio of ballot initiatives effectively legalizing casino gambling at licensed horse tracks.

“We really crossed our T’s and dotted our I’s with these two efforts,” Wishart said.

In an emailed statement through spokesperson Taylor Gage on Wednesday, Gov. Pete Ricketts called the petitions “simply one more effort to allow the multi-billion dollar marijuana industry to establish a foothold in Nebraska.” The governor has consistently voiced staunch opposition to legalizing cannabis in any form.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 36 states allowed for medical marijuana use as of May 18, while 18 states allowed for adult recreational use as of June 22.

For a statutory initiative to qualify for the ballot in Nebraska, it requires valid signatures from 7% of registered voters in the state. If the deadline were this week, that would be about 87,000 signatures per initiative. In addition, law also requires signatures from 5% of registered voters in 38 of Nebraska’s 93 counties.

Nebraskans for Medical Marijuana is aiming to overshoot requirements and gather 250,000 signatures, Wishart said, to account for any validity issues.

Crista Eggers is leading the group’s signature drive, and she said the group has hundreds of volunteers and has been building teams across the state. Eggers’ 6-year-old son, Colton, has intractable epilepsy. She got involved in the cause a few years ago, she said, when her family learned they had exhausted treatment options and saw other patients like Colton helped by medical cannabis in other states.

She said the 2020 petition drive that collected so many signatures amid a pandemic demonstrated momentum. She also pointed to 2017 polling that showed 77% of a sample of Nebraska voters favored letting doctors prescribe marijuana to patients with serious illnesses or conditions.

“I think it has become clear to people of Nebraska that this is something that should not be in the hands of our lawmakers, this is an issue that the people feel passionate about,” Eggers said.

The Nebraska Secretary of State’s Office acknowledged that multiple initiative petitions were filed on Thursday, but for now they will stay confidential. Under state law, the proposed measures will remain confidential until the language is reviewed by a state office that drafts legislation. Five days after the sponsor, Nebraskans for Medical Marijuana, receives the review, the language will become public.

The group expects to start gathering signatures by the end of September. The deadline to collect signatures will fall sometime in July 2022, the Secretary of State’s Office has said previously.

Other petitions in circulation for Nebraska’s 2022 fall election include one to require valid photo identification to vote. A petition drive has also been announced to incrementally increase the state’s minimum wage from $9 to $15 an hour by 2026.

Sens. Morfeld and Wishart, both of Lincoln, said late last year that they would introduce ballot language for “full adult use” of marijuana, including medical and recreational use. However, Wishart on Wednesday said she hasn’t been involved in any additional conversations around starting a recreational use campaign, and Morfeld said in a text message that he does not plan on filing an initiative.


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