So far, there are 14 bills regarding marijuana that have been proposed this year.
Sen. Anna Wishart of Lincoln introduced LB474 to the Committee on Wednesday. Wishart has been working on marijuana legislation for the past five years. Most recently, she and Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln led an effort to gather nearly 190,000 signatures in 2020 to add medicinal marijuana to the ballot.
Before voters could cast their ballots, however, the Nebraska Supreme Court struck down the measure. The court said the initiative violated the state’s single-subject rule for constitutional amendments and ordered Nebraska Secretary of State Robert Evnen to remove it from the November ballot.
The single-subject rule requires proposed law changes that appear on the ballot to have provisions that naturally and necessarily connect with each other and together are part of one general subject, according to Article III-2 of the Nebraska State Constitution.
On March 3, Wishart advocated for her bill, having worked to accommodate the concerns of those opposed to the measure. What makes LB474 different from other bills intended to legalize medicinal marijuana is its strict language that outlines its many restrictions.
“We have one of the most restrictive amounts of cannabis that anybody can have at one time in their possession than any other state in the country,” Wishart said. The bill states that patients are not allowed more than two and a half ounces in their possession at a time.
Other regulations include the method by which cannabis could be consumed, details as to what determines a qualifying medical condition, protections for insurance companies and employers and allowances for counties to determine whether to allow medicinal dispensaries within their limits.
The two-hour hearing included testimony from both sides of the issue.
Speaking in favor of LB474 was Dr. Amanda McKinney, associate dean of Health Sciences at Doane University. She said that lifetime dependence on marijuana is low at 9%. It is estimated that 9% of those who use cannabis develop a clinical dependence, according to a 2007 study. In contrast, alcohol has a rate of 16% while heroin, cocaine, and tobacco have rates of 16%, 23% and 32%, respectively.
“Compare this to other pharmaceuticals, especially psychotropic pharmaceuticals that we use all the time in medicine,” she said. “This is a much less dangerous drug. Nebraska has a real opportunity to be the gold standard to really create a program that’s, like I said, safe and effective for consumers,” McKinney said.
Two others who spoke in favor of LB474 were Crista Eggers and Nicole Hochstein, representatives from Nebraska Families for Medical Cannabis. They focused on the benefits medicinal marijuana has for those suffering from seizure disorders, particularly children.
“Our children deserve medications that could provide them with relief from these debilitating seizures. But there’s zip code that’s preventing it,” Hochstein said.
Eggers has a son suffering from drug-resistant epilepsy and said that legal medications and surgeries used to treat children like her son can have unintended consequences.
“We just want to save our children,” she said.
Wishart and other supporters also referenced a 2018 survey that showed 77% of Nebraskans support the legalization of medicinal marijuana. The survey was commissioned by the pro-legalization Marijuana Policy Project.
In opposition was Dr. Gary Anthone, chief medical officer for the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services Division of Public Health. He said that legalizing marijuana for any purpose, including medicinal use, poses risks to the health and safety of Nebraska residents. He referenced a report from the National Academy of Medicine that said cannabis use is likely to increase the risk of schizophrenia and other psychosis.
Anthone raised concerns about insufficient studies regarding the correct dosing for medicinal marijuana use. Marijuana is still listed as a controlled substance with no approved uses by the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Dr. John Massey, a board-certified pain physician representing the Nebraska Medical Association, said he opposes LB474 because he thinks it should be limited to certain medical conditions, not at the discretion of a physician.
Massey and other opponents are worried that patients will go “doctor shopping” to find providers who are more liberal when it comes to giving out prescriptions for medical marijuana.
“We’re not dogmatically opposed to medical marijuana,” he said. “We strongly want to serve as advisors to the clinical aspects and implications of the policy considerations underway.”
Col. John Bolduc, Nebraska State Patrol superintendent, had concerns about increases in criminal activity that he has seen in Nebraska as a result of the legalization of marijuana in other states. He said the rate would increase if Nebraska follows suit.
“With the legalization of this particular item and no limit on the amount of marijuana products that can be possessed, we will undoubtedly see an increase in black market diversion,” he said.
Bolduc said 70% of all drugs seized in Nebraska come from Colorado and California, states that have legalized recreational marijuana. He and other opponents worry that medicinal marijuana in Nebraska could end up in the hands of those without a prescription, for recreational use.
Gov. Pete Ricketts, who did not testify on Wednesday, has also been a staunch opponent of the legalization of cannabis in any form. In a news conference the same day, Ricketts had strong words regarding his position.
“This is a dangerous drug that will impact our kids. If you legalize marijuana, you’re gonna kill your kids,” he said.
Along with in-person testimony, the Committee received 19 letters from those who could not attend the hearing. There were six in favor of the bill and 13 opposed.
The Judiciary Committee did not vote on LB474.