Nebraska residents could gain a constitutional right to use medical marijuana under a proposed ballot measure presented Thursday to lawmakers.
Sen. Anna Wishart of Lincoln pitched a new version of a legalization measure to the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, backed by a coalition of residents who suffer from chronic conditions and parents who see it as a way to treat their children’s epileptic seizures.
“Nebraskans deserve a chance to vote on this issue,” Wishart said.
Wishart introduced the amendment after several previous legalization bills stalled in the Legislature. Unlike past measures, the amendment would appear on the November general election ballot if lawmakers approve it. Wishart said she believes voters would approve it, based on a poll commissioned by the Marijuana Policy Project, an advocacy group.
The proposal appears likely to advance out of the Judiciary Committee, but its prospects before the full Legislature are unclear. Gov. Pete Ricketts opposes legalization, but placing it on the ballot would bypass the Republican governor.
Supporters of legalization said cannabis is a safer alternative to addictive prescription painkillers that have led to fatal overdoses around the country. The Nebraska attorney general’s office and the state’s chief medical officer opposed the measure, noting that federal law still prohibits marijuana.
Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia allow marijuana for medical purposes. Federal authorities haven’t enforced the federal prohibition against states.
“Any regulatory scheme by the state of Nebraska to facilitate, promote or license marijuana products, even for medicinal purposes, would be pre-empted and illegal under federal law,” said Assistant Nebraska Attorney General Ryan Post. “The Legislature should not expose the state in this way.”
Dr. Thomas Williams, the state’s chief medical officer, said studies have shown “at best, inconsistent findings” that medical marijuana is beneficial to patients. Williams said more research is needed.
Placing a constitutional amendment on the ballot requires support from 30 of the Legislature’s 49 senators. The measure is also likely to face a filibuster, which supporters would need 33 votes to overcome. Last year, a filibuster halted a bill that would have allowed medical cannabis.
Shelley Gillen of Bellevue said legalizing cannabis would help her 15-year-old son, Will, gain access to a marijuana extract called cannabidiol, delivered in drops of oil. Will has Lennox-Gastaut syndrome, a rare and severe form of epilepsy that causes hundreds of seizures a day.
Gillen said her family has tried multiple federally approved drugs, special diets, surgical implants and chiropractic treatments, and nothing so far has worked. Their only remaining option is an invasive brain surgery that isn’t guaranteed to work.
“Our family has been begging and pleading with all 49 senators in our Legislature for five years now to help our child,” Gillen said.
Legalization supporters have tried in the past to place the issue of medical marijuana on the ballot through a petition drive, but failed to garner enough signatures.