Medical marijuana laws are a hot issue in Nebraska right now, mainly because legislative bill 643 passed after a vote of 27-12 advanced the proposal. The Medical Cannabis Act, as it is called, would allow pharmacists to distribute cannabis to patients with cancer, epilepsy and other chronic diseases. The law is slated to go into effect in July 2016.
The bill gained support among medical marijuana skeptics after senators adopted an amendment that would prohibit marijuana smoking and exclude “chronic pain” from the list of qualifying medical conditions. The bill has been modeled after legislation passed but not yet enacted in Minnesota. Highlights of the new bill include:
- Significant oversight of medical marijuana by the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, which would license only two in-state manufacturers and set prices and dosages.
- Smoking marijuana, even for medicinal use, would remain prohibited.
- Registered patients would be able to purchase cannabis in oil form.
- Alzheimer’s, post-traumatic stress disorder and Huntington’s disease are no longer conditions which qualify a person to be eligible to receive medical marijuana.
Until now, Nebraska’s medical marijuana debate has more often than not centered on whether parents of epileptic children should have access to the low THC oil derived from cannabis (the primary high-inducing ingredient in the plant). The substance has been shown to be so effective in helping to control seizures, that many family members of children with epilepsy met with the lawmakers to encourage legalization.
“There were moments when I had hope. There were moments when I was crying,” said Shelly Gillen, whose son suffers from seizures.
Shelly Gillen and her husband, Dominic Gillen, spend hours every week trying to convince senators to legalize medical marijuana, so their son can take a drug called cannabidiol oil.
“I think the Legislature spoke today that people want to try and do something,” Dominic Gillen said. “Instead of the senators continuing to say no to the bill, (they said) let’s work together to see what we can do to make this the best possible bill it can be rather than fighting against it.”
Proponents say the show of support will allow Senator Tommy Garrett and others to amend the bill before second-round debate.
“Colleagues, we need to be strong, we need to be brave,” said the bill’s author, Republican Sen. Garrett. “We need to help those that are sick and ailing and out of options.” Garrett added that changing medical marijuana laws in Nebraska was “not about stoners getting high… We are not Colorado, we are not California.”
On the other side of the aisle, opponents of the bill say Nebraska shouldn’t legalize the drug just because other states already have, and they are worried about the consequences of charging an already troubled Department of Health and Human Services to regulate a medical marijuana industry in Nebraska.
“It’s a dangerous position for legislators to practice medicine,” said Sen. Merv Riepe, according to the World-Herald Bureau. His remarks echoed earlier statements made by Gov. Pete Ricketts, who has said he opposes the bill but has not indicated whether he would veto it if it passes.
In a column headlined “Marijuana is a dangerous drug,” Ricketts said the medicinal virtues of marijuana are still much debated.
Nebraskans have been able to observe the effect of changing medical marijuana laws and legalizing recreational use in states, particularly Colorado, and the spillover here, Ricketts said in the column. Sheriffs in western Nebraska say it has placed a greater burden on law enforcement, he said.
Ricketts called legalization for any purpose a risky proposition.
“In spite of efforts to legalize marijuana for recreational or medicinal use in other states, marijuana remains a federally banned controlled substance whose medicinal value has not been tested,” Ricketts said.
Garrett said he honestly didn’t know where to start with Ricketts’ column.
“This is reefer madness all over again,” he said.
While Ricketts pulled out studies he said show marijuana’s detrimental effects, Garrett said he could show the governor all kinds of studies and information that support use of medicinal forms of marijuana.
But Ricketts defended the process in place through the Federal Drug Administration to determine whether a drug constitutes safe and effective medical treatment. Any legalization effort outside the process, he said, puts Nebraskans at risk.
“It’s really hard to pour your heart out, tell your story to try and give a politician a glimpse of your life, and still be told that the stance is that it has to go through the FDA process, especially when the FDA has already failed your child,” said Shelley Gillen.
“Our loved ones, many of them don’t have time to wait for the FDA, especially when every single day is a risk,” Gillen said.
Garrett said politicians are quick to condemn Washington for being ineffective and broken, including the Internal Revenue Service and the Environmental Protection Agency.
“But when it suits our purposes, we’ll talk about how great the FDA is. Give me a break,” Garrett said.