The Nebraska Supreme Court ruled on Thursday that a medical marijuana legalization initiative cannot appear on the state’s November ballot following a legal challenge.
Activists turned in enough signatures in July to qualify the measure, but Lancaster County Sheriff Terry Wagner filed a challenge against the secretary of state’s office last month, arguing that the proposal violates the state’s single-subject rule for ballot initiatives and would confuse voters.
While the state rejected that argument, the local police official took it up in court. Lawyers for both the sheriff and supporters of the measure—including state Sens. Adam Morfeld (D) and Anna Wishart (D)—made their respective arguments during a hearing last week.
The attorney for the plaintiff contended that the various provisions in the measure on patient access, retail sale and distribution constitute multiple issues that a single ballot initiative is not legally able to cover. But the defendant’s counsel made the case that this initiative’s scope is consistent with others that have been presented to voters and the single-subject matter is not at issue.
The court released its final opinion Thursday, determining that the proposal does in fact violate the single-subject rule and cannot proceed to the ballot.
“As proposed, the [Nebraska Medical Cannabis Constitutional Amendment] contains more than one subject—by our count, it contains at least eight subjects,” the court concluded. “In addition to enshrining in our constitution a right of certain persons to produce and medicinally use cannabis under subsections (1) and (2), in subsections (3) and (4), the NMCCA would enshrine a right and immunity for entities to grow and sell cannabis; and in subsections (6), (7), and (8), it would regulate the role of cannabis in at least six areas of public life. These secondary purposes are not naturally and necessarily connected to the NMCCA’s primary purpose. As such, they constitute logrolling.”
“If voters are to intelligently adopt a State policy with regard to medicinal cannabis use, they must first be allowed to decide that issue alone, unencumbered by other subjects,” the justices wrote.
Nebraskans for Medical Marijuana, the group that petitioned to place the measure on the ballot, said it is “absolutely devastated” that voters will not have a chance to decide on the issue in November.
“Nothing changes the fact that an overwhelming majority of Nebraskans stand with the patients and families who deserve compassion and safe access to medical cannabis,” the campaign said in a Facebook post. “We will be regrouping and updating you all soon with plans for our next steps.”
Justices Jonathan Papik and Lindsey Miller-Lerman, in a dissenting opinion, wrote that they are “concerned that today’s decision has squeezed the concept of single subject…such that the people’s right to initiative has been diminished.”
Secretary of State Bob Evnen said in a press release about the court’s decision that he “did my best to make those determinations on a timely basis in accordance with law.”
“Today the Supreme Court issued its decisions concerning these petitions,” he said, referring to the medical cannabis case and another concerning separate gambling measures. “I respect the rule of law and I will certify the ballot in compliance with the Court’s orders.”
In decisions issued today, the Nebraska Supreme Court ordered that three gambling initiatives be placed on the November general election ballot and that a medical cannabis initiative be withheld from the ballot. A media release can be found on my website https://t.co/jSQNLJVf1D
— NE Secretary of State Robert Evnen (@NEvnen) September 10, 2020
If the initiative was able to appear on the ballot and voters approved it, physicians would have been able to recommend cannabis to patients suffering from debilitating medical conditions, and those patients would then have been allowed to possess, purchase and “discreetly” cultivate marijuana for personal use.
“This is an outrageous and deeply flawed decision by a group of activist judges. This ruling means that sick and suffering medical marijuana patients, including veterans, will continue to be criminals in Nebraska when they try to live healthier lives,’ Matthew Schweich, deputy director of the Marijuana Policy Project, said in a press release. “This ruling tramples on the constitutional rights of over 190,000 Nebraskans who signed the petition and deprives the voters of Nebraska of their opportunity to decide this issue at the ballot box.”
“Our opponents are cowards. They use insider political tactics because they cannot win this debate,” he said. “Medical marijuana will be legal in Nebraska one day. We lost this battle but we will undoubtedly win the war. We’ll be back.”
Medical marijuana will not be on the ballot this year and while we are deeply disappointed in the Court's ruling to not allow an initiative on the ballot that over 190,000 Nebraskans signed, this does not end here. We will be back with another initiative and legislation.
— Senator Adam Morfeld (@Adam_Morfeld) September 10, 2020
In an email blast to supporters, Nebraskans for Medical Marijuana said that “Senator Wishart will be back in January with legislation, and we need to focus our energy on moving the hearts and minds of the Nebraska Legislature.”
Lawmakers in the state have repeatedly blocked prior efforts to advance cannabis bills, however.
Nebraska’s attorney general said in an opinion last year that efforts to legalize medical marijuana in the state would be preempted by federal law and “would be, therefore, unconstitutional.”
Here’s a status update on other 2020 drug policy reform campaigns across the country:
A measure to legalize marijuana in Arizona officially qualified for the November ballot last month.
Montana’s secretary of state also announced in August that cannabis activists collected more than enough signatures to qualify two legalization measures.
The Washington, D.C. Board of Elections certified last month that activists submitted enough valid signatures to place a measure to decriminalize plant- and fungi-based psychedelics in the nation’s capital.
Oregon’s secretary of state confirmed in July that separate measures to legalize psilocybin therapy and decriminalize possession of all drugs while expanding treatment services will appear on the November ballot.
Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak and stay-at-home mandates, separate measures to legalize marijuana for medical and recreational purposes qualified for South Dakota’s November ballot.
The New Jersey legislature approved putting a cannabis legalization referendum before voters as well.
And in Mississippi, activists gathered enough signatures to qualify a medical cannabis legalization initiative for the ballot—though lawmakers also approved a competing (and from advocates’ standpoint, less desirable) medical marijuana proposal that will appear alongside the campaign-backed initiative.
Idaho activists behind a medical marijuana legalization initiative were hoping to get a second wind after a federal judge said recently that the state must make accommodations for a separate ballot campaign due to signature gathering complications caused by the coronavirus pandemic. But following a U.S. Supreme Court ruling against the other group, hopes are dashed.
A campaign to legalize cannabis in Missouri officially gave up its effort for 2020 due to signature collection being virtually impossible in the face of social distancing measures.
North Dakota marijuana legalization activists are shifting focus and will seek qualification for the 2022 ballot.
Washington State activists had planned to pursue a drug decriminalization and treatment measure through the ballot, but citing concerns about the COVID-19 outbreak, they announced in July that they will be targeting the legislature instead.
Read the full Nebraska Supreme Court ruling below: