Medical Marijuana in Nebraska: Testing the Waters for Legalization

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Currently, medical marijuana in Nebraska is not legal because the Food and Drug Administration—who evaluate drug research for safety and effectiveness—has labeled marijuana a schedule one controlled substance. Also included on the list are heroin, LSD, and a multitude of other drugs that most of the general population would agree with the FDA as having “no accepted medical use, a lack of accepted safety for use even under medical supervision, and a high potential for abuse.” Recently, a legislative bill to make medical marijuana in Nebraska legal has challenge the long held categorization of marijuana as a schedule one controlled substance, and in the process has sparked a great deal of controversy.

The surprise proposal came on the last day for bill introduction in the Legislature, where lawmakers introduced 655 bills and four proposed constitutional amendments. And who did the honors, you ask? Why, none other than a man who says he’s never smoked pot in his life—Senator Tommy Garrett of Bellevue. The Senator says he has no interest in making marijuana legal for recreational use, but personal experience with a relative and pleas from his constituents led him to introduce the bill, dubbed the Cannabis Compassion and Care Act.

“This is about making life better for people,” Garrett said.

LB 643 would allow ill patients to use, possess and cultivate a limited amount of marijuana under medical supervision, while also ensuring that patients have access to the drug.

Not everyone agrees with Garrett’s bill, however, and consider it is one of the worst ideas to come around in a long time. “This is your gateway into the legalization of marijuana for recreation,” said Scotts Bluff County Sheriff Mark Overman. “They did the same thing in Colorado, they did the same thing in Washington and other places. It’s only the first step.”

Attorney General Doug Peterson said that if there is proof that marijuana is a beneficial medicine, then the appropriate path for the legalization of medical marijuana in Nebraska would be through the federal Food and Drug Administration. One problem with state-by-state legalization is that it’s too easy in some states to obtain a doctor’s order to buy pot for use as medicine, he said.

“The result has been that marijuana has become readily available to those who do not have a legitimate medical need,” Peterson said. “This then becomes a very serious problem with abuse of cannabis particularly among young people.”

Many opponents and supporters of marijuana use feel that, by only addressing medical use, LB 643 does not stimulate the correct debate. LB 643 will, however, test the waters. Discussion of this bill should either lay the matter to rest for Nebraska for a period of time, or lay the groundwork for a more comprehensive bill to be introduced in a future legislative session.

Garrett said full legalization is not his goal.

He said his father-in-law, who lived in Colorado and suffered from cancer, was told by a doctor there that marijuana could reduce his nausea during treatment.

“It did, in fact, do what the doctor said it would,” the Senator said.

Garrett, a 26-year Air Force veteran, said he’s one of the few people he knows who has never tried marijuana, but he is a “firm believer” that it can help some pain sufferers.

“There are children and adults in our communities with diagnosed debilitating medical conditions who will benefit from the inclusion of medical cannabis as a treatment option,” he said. “Such treatment would be tightly controlled and could only be prescribed by a licensed physician.”

California, in 1996, was the first state to legalize medical marijuana. Last year, two more states, Minnesota and New York, legalized it. Prior to the bill being introduced, the only steps taken in Nebraska to legalize pot were a couple of petition drives and a failed effort in 2010 to get the State Board of Pharmacy to reclassify marijuana so it could be used as medicine.

Garrett said he was not optimistic about getting his bill passed, “but I want to get the dialogue going.”