Medical marijuana backers say they won’t make a push for 2018 Nebraska ballot

LINCOLN — A national advocacy group that has helped legalize marijuana in several states won’t make a push to put medical cannabis on the November ballot in Nebraska.

A spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project in Washington, D.C., said last week that the group has been gathering support for a Nebraska petition drive, but it concluded it’s “too late in the year to mount an effective campaign at this point.”

“We are beginning to organize a robust medical marijuana campaign in 2020 in Nebraska,” said Morgan Fox, whose organization has been involved with ballot initiatives for medical or recreational marijuana in California, Arizona, Maine, Minnesota and other states.

The group would bring organizational expertise along with some of the financial support it takes to run petition drives, which generally cost about $1 million to gather the 120,000 valid signatures currently needed for a proposed constitutional amendment in Nebraska. Fewer signatures would be needed to put medical marijuana legislation before voters.

The decision to delay a serious, well-funded campaign represents a blow to those who hoped to capitalize on a recent survey that showed overwhelming support for medical cannabis among Nebraskans. But it’s good news for those who oppose medical marijuana, seeing it as the first step to broader legalization efforts.

Currently 29 states have comprehensive medical cannabis programs and eight states legalize the drug for recreational use. The Marijuana Policy Project says it works to change state and federal laws with the goal of regulating marijuana like alcohol.

Iowa officials are in the process of reviewing applications to license up to five medical marijuana dispensaries this year. Three applications have been submitted for Council Bluffs.

The national organization had been watching to see if the Nebraska Legislature would pass a resolution to let voters decide this year whether to put medical marijuana in the state constitution. But the sponsor of the resolution determined she didn’t have the votes to advance the proposal.

Sen. Anna Wishart of Lincoln, who also sponsored a medical cannabis bill last year, said she understands the pragmatic reasons to wait. But she expressed disappointment that people who want to legally use cannabis to alleviate their suffering will have to wait longer as well.

The second-year senator said she will introduce both legislation and another constitutional resolution next year. She said she hopes her colleagues will see the proposals as an opportunity to craft the policy that best fits Nebraska.

If voters are given the chance to decide the issue, Wishart predicted medical cannabis will win in a landslide. That prediction is based not just on voter surveys, but also on the strong support she said she hears from constituents, patients and even medical professionals.

“I feel confident that if the Legislature doesn’t do anything in the 2019 session, it will be on the ballot in 2020,” she said.

Meanwhile, there are two marijuana petitions currently on file with the Nebraska Secretary of State’s Office. One would decriminalize possession of less than 1 ounce of marijuana and the other would amend the constitution to permit unlimited use of marijuana by Nebraskans.

Sen. Matt Williams of Gothenburg said he does not support legalizing medical marijuana. The drug needs to follow the same rigorous testing, regulation and product development of any prescription medication before he could support it, he added.

Williams said his position has not been swayed by the recent survey, in which 77 percent of registered voters said they would vote to put medical cannabis in the constitution. The survey, with a margin of error of 4.9 percentage points, was commissioned by the Marijuana Policy Project.

“I don’t think those of us who feel strongly about an issue back down because of a threat of a petition drive,” Williams said, adding that the majority of constituents in his predominantly conservative district say they don’t want medical marijuana in the state.

But Williams agreed with Wishart that it would be appropriate for the Legislature to debate the issue next year. He agreed that it is important for lawmakers to lead important policy discussions to make sure all views are considered.

“I do not fully dismiss it,” he said. “I do think this is a conversation we should have.”

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