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Nebraska medical marijuana petition drive suffers legal setback but nearing signature goal

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With one day left, the Nebraskans for Medical Marijuana campaign has nearly enough signatures to make it on the ballot, but its representatives aren't feeling comfortable.

LINCOLN — One day before the deadline to turn in petition signatures, a federal appeals court dealt a blow to the Nebraskans for Medical Marijuana campaign Wednesday.

The 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a lower court’s decision, which means the state can enforce a requirement that initiative petition drives collect valid signatures from at least 5% of registered voters in 38 counties to make the ballot.

Earlier on Wednesday, campaign manager Crista Eggers said the medical marijuana petitions were “hovering” around the 87,000 total signature goal. She said she didn’t know where the petition drive stood on county distribution.

But she said efforts were continuing to collect more signatures to account for those that may be ruled invalid by the Secretary of State’s Office. She said organizers were aiming to get 5,000 more signatures each on the twin petitions by Thursday’s 5 p.m. deadline.

Eggers said Wednesday’s court order does not change that goal or mean the petition will fall short on the multicounty requirement. She said counting and sorting of signatures will be going on up to the last minute.

“We’re focused on collecting signatures. That’s all that matters right now,” she said. “We are capable of bringing this across the finish line.”

Eggers said volunteers are gathering signatures all across Omaha and Lincoln, as well as locations in other cities including Beatrice, North Platte, Grand Island and York. She said the campaign will be gathering signatures pretty much nonstop until noon Thursday.

The multicounty signature requirement is in the Nebraska Constitution, along with a requirement to collect a certain total number of signatures. ACLU of Nebraska, on behalf of Eggers and Nebraskans for Medical Marijuana, challenged the signature distribution requirement, arguing that it gave greater weight to voters in small, rural counties and violated the “one person, one vote” principle.

U.S. District Judge John Gerrard issued a preliminary injunction against the multicounty requirement on June 13. But the state appealed, requesting emergency action because of the looming petition deadline.

The appeals court order, which was issued 2-1 by a three-judge panel, granted the state’s request and lifted Gerrard’s injunction. But it did not decide the underlying issue, which will be addressed through ongoing litigation.

“Today’s decision is a setback but not the end of our case,” said Jane Seu, an ACLU attorney. “We were very encouraged by the earlier ruling in this case and we continue to feel confident.”

After the Nebraska Supreme Court rejected a similar campaign to legalize medical marijuana in 2020 because the petition contained more than one subject, the campaign was resurrected with two petitions.

The first petition would require the Legislature to enact new statutes protecting both the doctors who recommend medical cannabis and the patients who use it from criminal penalty. The second would require lawmakers to pass a bill protecting private entities that produce and supply cannabis for medical purposes.

As of last week, the campaign had about 67,000 signatures for each petition. Eggers said the holiday weekend was “huge” for the campaign, which gathered nearly 20,000 signatures to get it close to its goal.

However, now that the campaign is in the middle of the week following a holiday, Eggers said she isn’t sure the petitions can get the 5,000 signatures it needs. She said it’s up to Nebraskans whether the campaign “sinks or flies.”

“I can’t say I’m confident,” Eggers said Wednesday.

Eggers said she also is concerned that some volunteers in distant areas of the state have signatures they have yet to turn in. At this point, she said, it is too late to mail them back to the campaign. Petition drop-off locations are listed on the campaign’s website, nebraskamarijuana.org. Residents also can find places they can sign the petitions there, she said.

“Don’t wake up on July 8th asking what more you could have done to help save a life,” State Sen. Anna Wishart of Lincoln said in a campaign press release.

Meanwhile, two other statewide petitions have said they are either on track or already have the signatures they need to get on the ballot.

An official with Citizens for Voter ID said they are confident the group will meet its signature-gathering goal by Thursday, while Raise the Wage Nebraska reported Friday that it had cleared its goal by over 40,000 signatures.

ebamer@owh.com Twitter @ErinBamer

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Martha Stoddard keeps legislators honest from The World-Herald's Lincoln bureau, where she covers news from the State Capitol. Follow her on Twitter @StoddardOWH. Phone: 402-670-2402

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