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Last updated 6:48AM ET
May 23, 2018
Nebraska News
Nebraska News
Nebraskans seek to legalize various uses of marijuana
(NET Radio) - This Friday is the deadline for initiative petitions to be turned in to the Nebraska Secretary of State's office, and of the eight different petitions sought for inclusion on the November ballot, four would legalize recreational or medical use of marijuana. "We had some up in Buffalo County, in that area, some in Adams County, we had a few up in the Panhandle area, and then down here in Red Willow County we had quite a few."

NET News

Text from Frank Shoemaker's petition to legalize marijuana use in Nebraska

John Smith, executive director of the Nebraska chapter of NORML, reels off the names of counties where volunteers collected signatures for three related medical marijuana petitions.

A fourth, not sponsored by NORML, seeks to legalize marijuana use completely.

"We saw the need for it," Smith said. "Marijuana has a definite medical value, and I think we're definitely ready for it in our state."

Frank Shoemaker is sponsoring the fourth marijuana petition, which seeks to legalize marijuana completely. He's a retired McCook lawyer who caused a stir last winter with the court battle over his NE420 license plate, which references the unofficial pot smoker's holiday, April 20th.

With the deadline to collect enough signatures looming, the marijuana petitioners readily admit they won't make it. To get an initiative on the ballot, you have to collect petition signatures from 5 percent of registered voters from at least 38 counties - or about 120,000 signatures. NORML, or the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, only collected about 10,000.

But as states across the country consider their own medical marijuana legislation, it may be only a matter of time before Nebraska has to confront the issue.

Although neither group gathered enough signatures, Smith with NORML said support wasn't the issue.

"From what I've seen personally, somewhere between 80 to 90 percent of the people wanted to sign the petition to get it on the ballot."

At the outset, Nebraska seems like an odd setting for legalizing marijuana - but then again, maybe not. After all, it was one of the first states to decriminalize marijuana possession back in the 70s.

And for more than 50 years Nebraska farmers grew hemp, a type of cannabis used for its fiber. (Hemp lacks the THC levels of marijuana, or the chemical that gives marijuana users a high.) Government restrictions essentially made it illegal after World War II, but since then, 14 states have passed hemp-related laws, mostly for scientific or economic studies. In 2000, a bill was introduced in the Nebraska legislature to re-legalize hemp cultivation, but it was killed.

According to recent Gallup polls, more than 50 percent of Americans think marijuana should be legalized; that increases to 70 percent for medical marijuana.

So why didn't the petitioners succeed?

"We got off to a very late start," Smith said. "We only had eight months to get the signatures we needed."

Shoemaker said the vast majority of people he spoke with supported his petition verbally, but some were hesitant to attach their names to an illegal activity.

"What we ran into was what I would call a conspiracy of silence," he said. "The support is out there amongst the citizenry, but the people in power are unwilling to address the issue."

Russ Karpisek
Nebraska state senator

Four years ago, the Nebraska legislature increased penalties for marijuana possession. State Sen. Russ Karpisek sponsored that bill, which aligned fines for marijuana possession with those for a minor in possession of alcohol.

But Karpisek said he would at least consider arguments for a bill legalizing medical marijuana, as long as it wasn't a back door to legalizing recreational use.

"There was some thought, or one senator at one time thought about running a bill," he said. "Passing (it) would be a stretch, I think. You just don't want to be seen, maybe, as being pro-marijuana in the legislature."

But even if the medical marijuana initiatives ended up on the ballot - and, say for argument's sake, had been passed by voters - there would be a slew of additional complications.

Ally Dering-Anderson
UNMC pharmacy professor

Ally Dering-Anderson, pharmacy professor at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, said there are several main issues with medical marijuana laws.

Take Connecticut, which recently became the 17th state to permit medical marijuana. Connecticut's new law restricts distribution of the drug to licensed pharmacists, which Dering-Anderson said could help prevent abuse - on the other hand, it directly traps pharmacists between federal and state law.

There's also the nature of the drug itself, she said.

"We have a couple of weird conundrums with this product. Patients and recreational users alike use a plant. We have other drugs that come from plants: cumadin comes from sweet clover, digitalis comes from foxglove," she said. "Well, we don't have patients growing those plants to take care of themselves. And even if we did, we don't have some guy down the street who's either going to come rob your garden or buy the plant from you."

Dering-Anderson said the potential for abuse of marijuana isn't necessarily any greater than the abuse of existing prescription drugs, like Vicodin or Oxycontin. Yet after alcohol and cigarettes, Nebraska youth say marijuana is the easiest drug to obtain, according to numbers from the Lancaster County Substance Abuse Action Council (SAAC).

"You know, what we're dealing with right now is we've seen 17, 18 states that have legalized medical marijuana, and I believe the perception of risk is just not there anymore," said Patte Newman, SAAC coordinator. "Kids are saying, Well, people are using it for medical purposes. It can't be dangerous.'"

Both Newman and Dering-Anderson said the patchwork of laws from state to state creates more harm than good.

"Ultimately, if we're really going to do something, we're going to require a federal fix," Dering-Anderson said. "Because patients cross state lines. And illness crosses state lines. And good therapy is universal - it's not a state-by-state thing."

Their initial forays into the initiative process might have failed, but both Shoemaker and Smith said they're going to try again.

"Looking back, there were a few mistakes we made," Smith said. "This next go-around we're only going to try one petition and get it concentrated on there, and I think we'll have a lot better luck that way."

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