Nebraska medicinal cannabis bill stalls in Legislature; backers look to 2020 ballot

Nebraska medicinal cannabis bill stalls in Legislature; backers look to 2020 ballot
World-Herald News Service

LINCOLN — The 2020 ballot looks to be the next stop for proponents of medicinal cannabis after a legalization proposal stalled in the Nebraska Legislature on Wednesday.

State Sen. Anna Wishart of Lincoln, who introduced Legislative Bill 110, said she doesn’t think she can find enough votes to end a filibuster against her bill. Speaker Jim Scheer of Norfolk halted debate on the measure after three hours, based on his policy for handling filibusters.

“It’s very doubtful that I will get 33 (votes),” Wishart said, “so we’re on to the ballot.”

Just outside the legislative chamber, Dominic Gillen of Bellevue reached the same conclusion.

He watched the debate while clutching the hand of his teenage son, Will, who has suffered multiple daily seizures since he was 4 months old. Gillen said the debate was difficult to stomach, as opponents quickly switched from talking about medicinal cannabis to raising concerns about recreational marijuana.

“What this body is doing is daring the people to put it on the ballot,” Gillen said. “It’s going to be up to the people to do it.”

Gillen and other members of Nebraska Families 4 Medical Cannabis back the initiative petition drive that Wishart launchedlast year along with Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln. The petition effort aims to put a constitutional amendment legalizing medical cannabis before voters next year.

Earlier Wednesday, a handful of marijuana opponents held banners in the Capitol Rotunda to protest any legalization of cannabis in the state.

Margaret Wall of Lincoln said she and the other protesters were not part of any formal group. Rather, they are concerned about Nebraska following the path of other states in legalizing hemp, then medical marijuana and ultimately recreational marijuana.

Wall called herself a “pot refugee,” who moved to Nebraska because it is one of three states that do not allow any use of cannabis, the type of plant that includes both hemp and its intoxicating cousin, marijuana.

Opinions varied just as broadly inside the legislative chamber as senators took up a long-awaited debate on LB 110 Wednesday evening. The bill would allow Nebraskans with certain medical conditions to use cannabis for treatment.

The conditions would have to be among those listed in the bill and be certified every 90 days by medical professionals. Among those conditions is severe or chronic pain lasting longer than three months that is not adequately managed by non-opioid medications; post-traumatic stress disorder, where at least one other treatment failed; and terminal illnesses in which a patient had less than a year to live.

The bill also would create a system to regulate the production and distribution of cannabis to those patients.

An amendment adopted by the Judiciary Committee proposes tighter regulations than the original bill. It would not allow people to grow their own plants or smoke cannabis and would limit the amount of cannabis allowed to patients.

Morfeld said LB 110 represented the last opportunity for lawmakers to pass a “measured and reasonable” medical marijuana bill, while Sen. Wendy DeBoer of Bennington compared medicinal cannabis to natural remedies like ginger root for stomach upset or turmeric for inflammation.

On the other side, Sen. Mike Hilgers of Lincoln argued that Nebraska should not pass a law conflicting with federal marijuana laws. Sen. Suzanne Geist of Lincoln said scientists, not legislators, should be the ones approving medicines. Several opponents raised concerns about the effects of marijuana on individuals and society.

State budget. Nebraska lawmakers advanced the main $9.3 billion state budget bill to the final round of consideration Wednesday after spending two hours debating a $174,000 piece of it.

At issue was a study of nursing homes in the state. The study, to be paid for with a combination of nursing home fines and federal funds, is to look at reimbursement, regulations and other issues with an eye to ensuring that Nebraskans can get long-term care when needed.

State Sen. Kate Bolz of Lincoln said the study had been approved by the Appropriations Committee but was mistakenly left out of the bill before first-round debate. But some senators took the opportunity to take aim at the size of the budget generally. Among them, Sen. Ben Hansen of Blair said the budget was too big and the 3% increase in state spending was too high.

Lawmakers gave second-round approval to the budget bill on a 40-7 vote, after first rejecting an amendment that would have eliminated the nursing home study.

“Innocuous” corrections bill. A legislative package dealing with state prisons and criminal sentences won 40-0 first-round approval Wednesday even after the main sponsor admitted that it wouldn’t do much to address prison overcrowding in the state.

State Sen. Steve Lathrop of Omaha, who chairs the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee, said Legislative Bill 686 represented measures that could get passed, not what really needs to be done to ease the overcrowding, which has spawned a federal civil rights lawsuit. State prisons are at 153% of design capacity, which ranks in the top two nationally for overcrowding.

Lathrop, along with Lincoln Sen. Patty Pansing Brooks, argued that Nebraska needs to do more extensive criminal sentence reform, so more offenders are sentenced to lower-cost probation and problem-solving than expensive prison beds. Sentencing changes in 2015, crafted with the help of the Council of State Governments Justice Center, have fallen far short of projections in reducing prison overcrowding.

Sen. Ernie Chambers of Omaha was even more critical of LB 686, calling it an “innocuous” bill at a time when even conservatives like the Koch brothers agree that alternatives to prison are more effective and less costly.

LB 686 would prohibit the Department of Corrections from placing seriously mentally ill inmates and other “vulnerable” prisoners in solitary confinement and would allow judges in areas where there are no problem-solving courts to sentence offenders to intensive probation sentences that could wipe out a criminal charge. Lathrop described it as a “poor-man’s” problem solving court.

Another aspect of the bill would give counties more alternatives of where to send mentally ill inmates besides state-owned treatment facilities, which have long waiting lists.

The union that represents state corrections workers issued a press release Wednesday opposing the bill. It said that because mental health options are limited in state prisons, mentally ill inmates might be forced into the general population, where they would pose a threat to security officers.

The union also opposed a part of the bill that would ban corrections officers from having cellphones in their lockers because it would prevent officers from calling family members when they are required to work overtime.

Farm wineries. A bill given first-round approval on Wednesday would allow farm wineries to have up to four tasting rooms (instead of just one), and allow them to use fewer Nebraska-grown grapes.

Right now, farm wineries are required to use at least 75% Nebraska-grown grapes or fruit. LB 592 would allow that percentage to drop to 60%, which supporters said would help wineries when drought or floods reduce the state grape harvest. The bill was portrayed as aiding the state’s wineries.

Lawmakers rejected an attempt to allow farm wineries to sell beer and other alcohol on their premises. Opponents said the provision could raise constitutional concerns because it would treat Nebraska wineries differently than other wineries and could erode the state’s system of regulating alcohol production, distribution and sales.