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Nebraska Activists Relaunch Medical Marijuana Ballot Campaign After Legislative Filibuster Blocks Bill

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Nebraska marijuana activists are wasting no time relaunching a campaign to put a medical cannabis legalization initiative before voters in 2022 after the legislature failed to pass a reform bill on Wednesday.

The defeat of the fairly restrictive legislation in the unicameral body, which was the result of a filibuster that supporters were unable to overcome, came with an open threat from advocates: since lawmakers won’t fulfill the will of voters, who overwhelmingly support medical marijuana, the voters will move to approve an even more comprehensive legalization measure.

Hours after the bill fell two just votes short of the 33 senators it needed to advance, Nebraskans for Medical Marijuana announced that activists will immediately ramp up a signature drive for a constitutional ballot initiative. They have reason to be confident that the campaign will be successful, too, as the group qualified a medical cannabis measure for the 2020 ballot, amid a pandemic.

That initiative never appeared before voters, however, because the state Supreme Court ruled that it violated what’s known as the single subject rule for ballot issues. To avoid that problem this round, the new proposed measure is a single sentence: “Persons in the State of Nebraska shall have the right to cannabis in all its forms for medical purposes.”

“It was true last year and it remains true today that the vast majority of Nebraskans are on our side when it comes to this issue,” Sen. Anna Wishart (D), sponsor of the cannabis bill and co-chair of the reform campaign, said in a press release. “Voters were unfairly denied the opportunity to enact reform last year, but this time we’re ready for any legal challenge, and we will succeed.”

Nebraskans for Medical Marijuana is also thinking about filing a separate, statutory petition that would establish a regulatory framework for a medical cannabis program in the state.

This is what multiple senators warned opponents about during the hours-long floor session on Wednesday. Even some of those who don’t necessarily favor loosening laws around marijuana explained to their colleagues that failure to pass the bill likely meant that voters would circumvent them and approve something that is significantly less restrictive.

The legislation that Wishart would have allowed patients with a certain set of qualifying conditions to purchase and possess cannabis from licensed dispensaries. And it wouldn’t have allowed patients to smoke marijuana.

Wishart and Sen. Adam Morfeld (D) have been consistent champions of cannabis reform, and while this bill is a fairly limited proposal to legalize medical marijuana, the pair announced in December that they’re also working to put the question of legalization for adult use before voters in 2022.

For a constitutional amendment initiative, advocates will need to collect about 124,000 valid signatures to qualify for the ballot. By contrast, the campaign submitted nearly 200,000 signatures last year before the legal challenge over language.

If activists do collect enough signatures to qualify either the medical or recreational cannabis measure, they will still likely face a challenge at the polls, as midterms generally see lower turnout as compared to presidential election years.

Gov. Pete Ricketts (R) is an adamant opponent of marijuana reform, so it seems likely he would have vetoed any medical cannabis bill that lawmakers sent to his desk. Overriding a gubernatorial veto would’ve required 30 votes, meaning at least some members of his own party would have had to move to reject the governor’s action.

Under last year’s blocked Nebraska medical cannabis initiative, 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.

For what it’s worth, Nebraska’s attorney general said in an opinion in 2019 that efforts to legalize medical marijuana in the state would be preempted by federal law and “would be, therefore, unconstitutional.”

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Photo by davide ragusa on Unsplash.

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Kyle Jaeger is Marijuana Moment's Sacramento-based senior editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE and attn.

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