Nebraska advocates fight to keep medical marijuana on Nov. 3 ballot

Published on September 2, 2020 · Last updated September 3, 2020
In the pre-pandemic days, volunteers gathered signatures for Nebraska's medical marijuana legalization initiative in Omaha. Now advocates must fight a series of last-minute challenges to keep the initiative on the Nov. 2020 ballot. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik, File)

Although an initiative to legalize medical marijuana in Nebraska has already been certified to appear on the statewide ballot in November, the measure’s opponents aren’t going away quietly.

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Nebraskans for Medical Marijuana—a campaign led by State Senators Anna Wishart (D), Adam Morfeld (D) and former State Senator Tommy Garrett (R)—gathered nearly 200,00 signatures to put the Nebraska Medical Cannabis Constitutional Amendment on the ballot (they needed 121,669 to qualify).

Medical marijuana legalization is expected to pass in Nebraska, so prohibitionists are launching eleventh-hour maneuvers to kick it off the ballot.

Yet their success hasn’t stopped opponents of medical marijuana from launching eleventh-hour maneuvers to keep legalization off the ballot.

Last week, Lancaster County Sheriff Terry Wagner (R) petitioned Secretary of State Bob Evnen (R) to invalidate the initiative, claiming that it “causes confusion” and violates a state law that limits any initiative to a single issue. Using medical marijuana and producing it for sale, he argued, are two separate issues.

Election 2020: Nebraska medical marijuana legalization guide

One Hail Mary rejected, another thrown

Evnen rejected the petition, though he admitted it was a “close call.” Last Friday, Wagner responded by filing a court case to stop the initiative from appearing on the ballot.

Nebraska’s Supreme Court will hear arguments this Thursday, Sept. 3. The justices are expected to make their decision by Sept. 11. 

In the meantime, Nebraskans for Medical Marijuana are seeking donations to a legal fund to pay their attorneys.

“I still feel very confident that our language is legally sufficient to meet the legal requirements,” Senator Wishart told Leafly. “It’s just one more obstacle and challenge that we are going to overcome.”

Election 2020: All you need to know about cannabis legalization on the ballot

A long struggle to legalize in the Cornhusker State

This isn’t the first time that medical marijuana has nearly made it to the finish line in Nebraska. 

In 2015, then-Senator Garrett sponsored LB 653, Nebraska’s first medical marijuana bill. It failed to pass by two votes, even after he watered it down by eliminating smokable cannabis. “This is a very conservative state and people are always afraid of stepping out of line, if you will, about quote unquote conservative values,” Garrett told Leafly earlier this year.

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Although he has signaled that he won’t stand in the way of the state Supreme Court’s ruling, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts (R) remains staunchly opposed to the medical marijuana initiative. When asked about it on Monday, Aug. 31, Ricketts told reporters that “there is no such thing as medical marijuana.” 

Though Ricketts may believe otherwise, there is, in fact, such a thing as medical marijuana.

Cannabinoids 101: What Makes Cannabis Medicine?

A governor without command of facts

Despite the fact that the initiative specifically includes languages spelling out the fact that the proposed law “does not require an employer to allow an employee to work while impaired by cannabis,” Ricketts insisted that it would enable people to “show up to work stoned.”

“This is not a benign thing,” he said. “This is a dangerous thing.”

The initiative would not allow employees to show up stoned. In his comments, Gov. Ricketts is amplifying a fear that has no basis in fact. There are no studies or reports of employees showing up to work impaired by cannabis, or being legally allowed to do so, due to the passage of medical marijuana laws.

A sheriff out of step with his colleagues

As for Sheriff Wagner, state Sen. Wishart points out that he has long been opposed to medical marijuana. “I’ve known him for many years and respectfully disagree with him on this issue,” she told Leafly.

“We do have support in this state from law enforcement, and frankly, people of all walks of life.”

– State Sen. Anna Wishart, co-sponsor of Nebraska’s medical marijuana initiative

Wagner’s lawyer, Mark Fahleson, who is also the former Chairman of the Nebraska Republican Party, did not respond to a request for comment.

Yet Wishart added that elsewhere in the state, she has received strong support from law enforcement officials. “When I was out gathering signatures in some of our more rural counties, it was actually the sheriffs that we relied on to point us in the direction of people who would likely sign,” she said. “We do have support in this state from law enforcement, and frankly, people of all walks of life.”

A plea for support to defend the ballot initiative

Leaders of Nebraskans for Medical Marijuana are currently seeking donations to pay their two attorneys, Max Kelch and Jason Grams, for their time.

“Both of them are fantastic attorneys,” Wishart told Leafly. “We’re raising as much money as we possibly can because we’ve had to utilize their time more extensively over the past three weeks than we anticipated.” She added that the donations will be used exclusively to cover Kelch and Grams’ fees.

More information on how to donate can be found here.

Full speed ahead with the campaign

Despite the legal challenge, Wishart is already looking towards the general election campaign. Her confidence has been bolstered by Secretary Evnen’s decision to certify the measure last month. “That goes a long way in terms of feeling confident that we’ve met all the benchmarks we need to meet,” she said.

The campaign is also planning to help walk people through the voting process, whether they plan to do so via a mail-in ballot, or in person. 

“What we’ve created with this ballot initiative is something very special,” Wishart said. “At this point in Nebraska you’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t have a family member or a friend that has benefited…We’ll continue to share the stories of Nebraskans who need access or who have had access and seen benefits.”

“[Politics] can feel really cynical right now,” she added, “but on this issue, in Nebraska, it’s such a positive place to be.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story contained a typo in a quote from Sen. Anna Wishart. The typo indicated she said “disrespectfully,” when in fact she said “respectfully.” This was Leafly’s error, and we corrected it as soon as we caught it.

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Max Savage Levenson
Max Savage Levenson
Max Savage Levenson likely has the lowest cannabis tolerance of any writer on the cannabis beat. He also writes about music for Pitchfork, Bandcamp and other bespectacled folk. He co-hosts The Hash podcast. His dream interview is Tyler the Creator.
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