OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — A bill to legalize and tightly regulate medical marijuana died in the Nebraska Legislature on Wednesday, setting the stage for a much less restrictive ballot measure with a good chance of passing.
Supporters of the bill fell two votes shy of the 33 they needed to break a filibuster and force lawmakers to vote on it. The 31-18 vote came as no surprise, as lawmakers have repeatedly rejected legalization measures, but the looming ballot measure could leave Nebraska with an uncharacteristically liberal medical pot law.
Supporters said the bill would have given Nebraska one of the nation's most conservative medical marijuana policies, and they promised to take the issue to voters. Medical marijuana ballot drives have generally been successful in other states, and it's widely believed that Nebraska would see the same result.
“No amount of money or opposition is going to silence the people of Nebraska on this issue,” said Lincoln Sen. Anna Wishart, the bill's main sponsor.
Wishart said she introduced the bill to give lawmakers “one last chance” to approve something that they can control before backers take the matter to voters in 2022. She said her bill was so watered down from previous versions that she's gotten pushback from legalization advocates and people who would be excluded from getting the drug.
“It's time to accept the fact that this is the last train out of town if you want to regulate this,” said another supporter, Sen. Steve Lathrop, of Omaha.
The bill would have legalized the drug for medical uses, but only for 17 diseases and ailments, including cancer, glaucoma and post traumatic stress disorder. Smokable marijuana would have remained illegal, and the state would have limited the number of dispensaries and required doctors to get extra training before they could recommend it to patients. Patients would have been barred from growing their own supply or possessing more than 2.5 grams at once, and those who violated the law would have been permanently disqualified from the program.
Attention will now turn to a ballot petition drive that would guarantee a constitutional right to use marijuana for medical reasons, with no other restrictions. Supporters easily qualified medical marijuana for the ballot in 2020 — collecting 196,000 signatures amid the coronavirus pandemic — but the Nebraska Supreme Court blocked it on a technicality that supporters said they've since fixed.
Opponents argued that marijuana is still illegal under federal law, even though most other states allow some form of public access. Others viewed it as a slippery slope toward legalization for recreational use and say they are worried about the impact on public health. Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts is fervently opposed as well.
“All of this to me is a gateway,” said Sen. Joni Albrecht, of Thurston. “I'm not going to stand here and develop a policy when I just don't know what it's going to do to people.”
Sen. Curt Friesen, of Henderson, said he believes voters would approve a legalization measure if it goes to the ballot. But he said he doesn't think state lawmakers are qualified to decide whether it's safe for medical use.
“I think people need to be educated as to what the dangers are,” he said.
Sen. Matt Williams, of Gothenburg, said he doesn't doubt public opinion polls that show strong statewide support for legalization, but his constituents have largely told them that they're opposed.
“In my district, I've been sent a clear message," he said.
Sen. John Lowe, of Kearney, said he had “grave concerns” about legalization and noted that the drug is more potent now than in the past. He asserted that heavy users often face long-term health consequences, and said he was worried about people driving impaired.
The statements carried little weight with some supporters, who accused of opponents of making unserious arguments and not addressing the specific merits of the bill. Some senators cast the refusal to legalize the drug as an embarrassment that would make it harder for Nebraska to attract new residents.
“Pretty soon, not even the old people will want to live here," said Adam Morfeld, of Lincoln.
Sen. Megan Hunt, of Omaha, said lawmakers were having “a 1992 level discussion" that didn't acknowledge the national movement toward legalization.
“We aren't starting from a serious premise,” she said, adding that she has tried marijuana before, “because I'm 35 and I'm normal.”
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