The conversations regarding cannabis and the US, are usually about which state is about to pass a recreational measure, or where the federal government is with legalization. But for a few choice states, there is still no cannabis allowance at all. Like Nebraska, which is only now getting its stuff together for a medical cannabis ballot in 2024.
The news on Nebraska
Nebraska might not be the leader among us when it comes to cannabis reform, but it’s within the process, and might be making a big jump soon. As a representative of the ‘other side’ of the cannabis debate, Nebraska’s continuing attempts for medical cannabis legislation show how even in the deepest of cannabis prohibition strongholds, there is still room for update and change.
Nebraska does have a medical cannabis reform bill currently in its congress (a unicameral legislature, meaning only one house/side), which stalled-out in committee. As a way to revive the effort, Marijuana Moment reported that the group Nebraskans for Medical Marijuana (NMM) put forth two petitions to the secretary of state. They were sent over on the 18th of May, and are meant to get a medical cannabis measure on the ballot in Nebraska for 2024 elections.
Nebraska might not have come far yet, but this push is not new. These petitions are the third attempt at getting a voter ballot for the residents of the state to decide, instead of their government. In 2020, for the first attempt, enough signatures were collected for inclusion on the ballot, but the Supreme Court of the state invalidated the effort by saying it broke the single subject rule.
Many states have this rule, and it requires that ballots not ask people to vote on more than one thing at once. This does make sense in that it doesn’t require a person to vote for something they don’t want, in order to vote for something else they do want, which is attached. In 2022, the group lost important funding, and as a result, was not able to collect enough signatures for the ballot that year.
NMM ‘s co-chair Crista Eggers had this to say in a press release: “We have no choice but to keep petitioning our government. The Legislature refuses to act despite the will of over 80 percent of Nebraskans (from all parties, regions, ages, etc) supporting this.” She continued that “For over 10 years we’ve advocated, educated and fought, trying to do it the right way, though our elected leaders in the Unicameral, and every year we come up empty handed. So we will go to the ballot once again.”
The current bill, which is languishing in committee, was written by democrat Sen. Anna Wishart. Her bill for medical cannabis legalization got a hearing in the legislature’s Judiciary Committee in February, but has not moved since that time. Though Wishart says this is likely from turnover and changes in the legislature, a similar measure also died in the legislature via a filibuster. It sounds like Eggers has the right idea at this point of going around the legislature.
In response to her own bill’s situation, and a possible ballot measure, Wishart said, “Of course we are filing again. The way to succeed is to never give up and every time we hit a setback we grow stronger.” It’s good to know that if legislation can’t get through the legislature, that there is another route by way of signature collection and ballot measures.
What would Nebraska medical cannabis ballot measure entail?
Should the ballot measure make it through, what can Nebraskans expect to vote on? Two different initiatives were submitted. The first would make lawmakers have to legally protect doctors who prescribe cannabis to patients, and patients who then buy and use it.
The measure aims to “enact a statute that makes penalties inapplicable under state and local law for the use, possession, and acquisition of limited quantities of cannabis for medical purposes by a qualified patient with a written recommendation from a health care practitioner, and for a caregiver to assist a qualified patient in these activities.”
The second petition pertains to the creation of a new Nebraska Medical Cannabis Commission. This commission would regulate the medical cannabis industry in the state. Its job? To create “necessary registration and regulation of persons that possess, manufacture, distribute, deliver, and dispense cannabis for medical purposes.”
According to what Wishart told Marijuana Moment, the new petitions are “same as the language in 2022,” and that they “will go through a process with the SOS in which they review legally.” In order to evade the problem of 2020, and the issue of more than one subject covered in a ballot measure, the current petitions have a very narrow focus.
Submitting the petitions is just the first of many steps. In order for Nebraska to allow the medical cannabis ballot measure to go before voters in the election, it must first collect approximately 87,000 signatures, which then are validated. This must be done for each petition, and they must be turned in by July 5th, 2024. This gives the group over a year from now to collect the signatures.
Nebraska and cannabis
Nebraska is one of now only a handful of states that still holds cannabis illegal, both medically and for recreational use. It does have a decriminalization measure, however, which stems back to 1979, and makes possession of a small amount, into a civil infraction. About 10 years prior to this update, there was a different update.
The 1969 update lowered the punishment for possession of small amounts, and limited it to seven days in jail. This, of course, doesn’t say anything good about what people were subjected to prior to that update. Even for something as simple as possession of a joint.
Nebraska is so hard-core in its marijuana-hating, that in 2014, along with Oklahoma, it requested of the US’s Supreme Court, the ability to open a legal case against Colorado. What it wanted, was for the Court to nullify Colorado’s recent recreational legalization. As in, it was asking the Court to make a decision about a states rights vs federal law issue.
Nebraska claimed it was angry that its own arrest rate for cannabis had increased by 11% around that time, and named Colorado and its legalization as the culprit for the increase. The state claimed the cost of law enforcement against cannabis also rose 11%, as well as causing social harm. Realistically, regardless of however this idea of ‘harm’ was calculated, the state also would have collected that much more in fines as a result, and that doesn’t come to any small amount.
The Supreme Court denied the request in 2016, and stopped the case from going further. There were, however, two dissenting judges: Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito. Luckily, their desire to see this lawsuit happen – and the mess it would cause – was crushed by the rest of the court.
There was a previous attempt at medical cannabis in the state. In 2015, a bill was proposed in the state legislature called the “Cannabis Compassion and Care Act.” The bill would have let patients with certain ailments consume either pills or liquids, but not smokables. Qualifying ailments included HIV, cancer, hepatitis, and glaucoma. Unfortunately, after initially getting traction, the bill was put on hold by its sponsor Senator Tommy Garrett. When it was reintroduced the following year, it was blocked by a Senate filibuster, and could not advance as it was three votes short.
It’s not a sure bet that Nebraska will have a medical cannabis ballot measure for its residents in 2024, but its looking more, and more likely. And though Nebraska is way behind most other states in cannabis reform, it does go to show that even the holdouts can eventually fall. As of right now, 38 states out of 50 have medical programs.
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