Marijuana legalization continues to face hurdles from bill language technicalities and fiercely opposed law enforcement. However, this has not stopped Nebraska state senators from introducing marijuana bills during this legislative session. On Feb. 19, the Judiciary Committee heard a proposed constitutional amendment relating to marijuana decriminalization and recreational use: LR2CA.
Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha proposed LR2CA, a constitutional amendment that would place legalization of recreational marijuana use on the November 2022 general election ballot. If Nebraskans vote to approve, the Legislature would form and enact laws regulating the sale of marijuana for those 21 years old and older.
“This is not saying whether you endorse recreational marijuana or not, you’re saying let the people decide,” Wayne said. “It gives a chance for the voters to decide whether we should legalize marijuana for those who are 21 years and older.”
Wayne has previously worked with Sen. Anna Wishart of Lincoln and Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln to push medical marijuana legislation. Wishart and Morfeld, co-chairs of Nebraskans for Medical Marijuana, are long-time proponents of medical marijuana legislation.
In July 2020, Nebraskans for Medical Marijuana collected over 182,000 signatures to put medical marijuana on the 2020 election ballot, despite COVID-19-related obstacles.
Wishart has said the petition drive indicates overwhelming statewide support for medical marijuana.
However, the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled 5-2 that the ballot issue violated a single-subject requirement for a constitutional amendment, and the bill was disqualified. During this legislative session, Wishart introduced LB474 in another attempt to legalize medical marijuana.
Arizona, Montana, New Jersey and neighboring South Dakota voted to legalize marijuana last election. On Nov. 3, 54% of South Dakota voters approved a constitutional amendment that legalizes recreational and medical marijuana. Similar to the Nebraska Supreme Court case, a circuit judge later found that the amendment violated the single-subject rule. Sponsors of the measure will file an appeal with the South Dakota Supreme Court.
Undeterred by these past setbacks for marijuana legislation, Wayne said “it’s time to go recreational.”
“It’s going to happen sooner or later; the feds are moving in that direction,” he said. “I think it’s better for Nebraska businesses and Nebraska people to be involved in the process and start the businesses in Nebraska versus from the conglomerates coming in and taking over.”
Joe Nigro, speaking on behalf of the Nebraska Criminal Defense Attorneys Association, supported LR2CA. Nigro said the resolution is an important step in ending the “failed war on drugs” that originated during former President Richard Nixon’s administration.
“This has been particularly devastating on people of color. Nowhere is this more apparent than with marijuana,” Nigro said during the hearing. “Besides the consequences of criminal penalties for possession, conviction can affect eligibility for federal student loans, federal housing and loss of immigration status.”
According to a study conducted by the ACLU of Nebraska in 2018, Black people were three times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession in Nebraska even though Black and white people use marijuana at similar rates.
Opponents included Dr. Gary Anthone, chief medical officer for the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services Division of Public Health. Anthone said there needs to be more scientific evidence on how the active ingredient in marijuana, THC, affects human development and U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval before legalizing this drug.
“Permitting marijuana use for any purpose poses an increased risk to the health and safety of Nebraskans by exposing them to a drug that does not meet the strict standards set by the U.S. FDA,” he said.
Gov. Pete Ricketts is also a vocal opponent of legalizing marijuana in Nebraska. In a Feb. 23 press statement, Ricketts compared the marijuana industry to “Big Tobacco” and urged Nebraskans “to be steadfast in resisting their tactics.”
“Nebraskans have common sense and instinctively understand how this dangerous drug could harm our youth, our communities, and our economy,” Ricketts said. “While popular media has tried to reframe how the public thinks about marijuana, it’s important to understand the health consequences and dangers of this drug.”