LINCOLN — Nebraska lawmakers blocked what would have been one of the nation’s strictest medical marijuana laws on Wednesday.
As a consequence, the state may see one of the most wide-open medical marijuana measures on the ballot next year. Petition language filed by medical marijuana backers would guarantee Nebraskans the constitutional “right to cannabis in all its forms for medical purposes.”
And State Sen. Anna Wishart of Lincoln predicted voters will pass it easily.
“No amount of money or opposition is going to silence Nebraska on this issue,” she said. “We’ve grown a movement.”
For Wednesday, though, a filibuster kept Wishart’s Legislative Bill 474 from advancing. Supporters fell two votes short of the 33 needed to cut off the filibuster and advance the bill, which faced stiff opposition from Gov. Pete Ricketts.
The vote left Wishart “pretty sad,” she said, although she drew encouragement from the fact that she started the debate with 20 votes on her side and ended it with 31. The senators voting for the bill included some surprises, particularly Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte, who has voted against similar bills in the past.
Groene said he knows a number of Nebraskans who have turned to medical marijuana, obtained from other states, to help with health problems. They include a man with terminal brain cancer, he said. Traditional medications left him incoherent and unable to function, so his very conservative family turned to medical marijuana. That made it possible for him to spend his last three months alert and able to interact with his family.
“I could go on and on about people I know,” Groene said. “There are people all across the state using it for pain relief.”
He said LB 474 offered the best chance to stop a petition drive aimed at legalizing recreational marijuana. Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha also argued that the bill would give lawmakers a chance to regulate medical marijuana.
“We’ll look back at this as an opportunity missed because we had an opportunity to gain control,” Lathrop said. “This is the last train out of town if you want to regulate this.”
Similar to previous Wishart bills, LB 474 would have set up a tightly controlled process to regulate the production, processing and distribution of marijuana for use by people with certain health conditions.
As advanced from the Judiciary Committee, the bill would include cancer, post-traumatic stress disorder, terminal illnesses and chronic pain among the qualifying ailments. But it would prohibit patients from growing their own marijuana or smoking it, two restrictions that concerned some medical marijuana backers.
Opponents, however, raised numerous concerns about legalizing marijuana for medical uses. Several argued that the decision to approve medical marijuana should be handled by the federal Food and Drug Administration, the same as other medications, not by state lawmakers.
“We are citizen legislators,” said Sen. Suzanne Geist of Lincoln. “We are not scientists. We do not have the capacity to make a wise decision on this.”
Others pointed to problems in states that allow recreational use of marijuana, including an increase in drivers impaired by marijuana use and issues with people developing an addiction to marijuana or using marijuana as a steppingstone to other drugs.
“All of this to me is a gateway,” said Sen. Joni Albrecht of Thurston, while acknowledging there are residents of her northeast Nebraska district who get marijuana mailed from other states.
The defeat of LB 474 leaves Nebraska among a minority of states that do not allow medical use of marijuana. A petition drive last year came close to challenging that status.
Wishart and Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln led the petition drive, which gathered more than 196,000 signatures of registered voters. That was more than enough to get the measure on the ballot, but it was tossed off by the Nebraska Supreme Court, which ruled that it contained more than one subject in violation of the State Constitution.
The two senators already have filed language with the Secretary of State’s office for a new, one-sentence petition measure. Wishart said the new drive will be launched in the coming days. Key to their effort will be the parents who have pushed for years to get access to medical marijuana for their children.
Several watched the debate Wednesday. Crista Eggers of Gretna, whose son Colton suffers from uncontrolled seizures, teared up after the vote.
“I don’t know if there’s words to summarize how it feels watching people debate human suffering for eight hours and then cast a vote that says they don’t care,” she said.
The opposition has been led by Ricketts, Attorney General Doug Peterson and former Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne. They have warned that legalizing medical marijuana would be the first step toward legalizing it for recreational use. An organization called, or Smart Approaches to Marijuana, has mounted television and radio advertising campaigns against medical marijuana.