(Miguel Rojo, AFP/Getty Images file)

Nebraska lawmakers advance medical marijuana bill

LINCOLN, Neb. — Nebraska residents suffering from debilitating illnesses could access medical marijuana under a bill that cleared a first-round vote in the Legislature with a compromise aimed at preventing widespread use of the drug.

Senators voted 27-12 Tuesday to advance a measure that would allow distribution of cannabis to patients with cancer, epilepsy and other chronic illnesses.

The bill gained support after senators adopted an amendment that would prohibit smoking cannabis and would not include chronic pain as a qualifying condition to receive the drug. Sponsor Sen. Tommy Garrett of Bellevue argued that the bill is a meaningful measure to ease nausea for sick and ailing residents.

“This is not about stoners getting high,” Garrett said. “We are not Colorado; we are not California.”

In December, Nebraska joined Oklahoma in filing a lawsuit before the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down Colorado’s marijuana legalization law.

The compromise on Tuesday attracted “yes” votes from wild cards such as conservative Sen. Dave Bloomfield of Hoskins, who said he would support legislation that treated cannabis more like a drug than a recreational activity.

But opponents worried about the details of regulating the drug and the effects of legalizing a substance not yet approved by the Federal Drug Administration.

“I feel that we’re caught up in the wave of what is going on. I, too, have met with a number of families, but you cannot make policy based on a limited number of folks,” Sen. Merv Riepe of Omaha said.

Sen. Jim Scheer of Norfolk opposed the bill and reminded the Legislature of another measure up for debate that would study the effectiveness of hemp oil for treating seizures, saying it follows a safer and slower path to help Nebraska residents.

“Let’s not forget that this isn’t the only option we have this year,” Scheer said.

Sen. Beau McCoy of Omaha said he worries that physicians would be removed from the medical process because their only role would be to recognize the qualifying illnesses, rather than to monitor marijuana usage. He also said he feared that the members of the proposed Medical Cannabis Board, appointed by the governor, would have too much control to widen regulations in the future.

But Sen. Colby Coash of Lincoln, who worked to advance the measure from legislative committee, urged senators to treat the first-round vote as a test to signal whether Garrett should invest the time and effort to further amend the measure. Sen. Heath Mello of Omaha vowed to help re-draft the bill, saying that growing up with a mother who had epilepsy convinced him to consider available relief for those battling life-long illnesses.

Both Gov. Pete Ricketts and Attorney General Doug Peterson have vocally opposed legalizing marijuana without FDA approval.

Ricketts has not indicated whether or not he would veto the bill if it passes.

Online: LB643