Legalization of medical marijuana stalls

After four hours of debate, an attempt to force a vote on a bill that would legalize medical marijuana in Nebraska failed April 5.

As originally introduced by Bellevue Sen. Tommy Garrett, LB643 would authorize the state Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) to regulate the manufacture and use of cannabis in Nebraska for medical purposes.

Cannabis permitted under the bill would be only in liquid, oil, pill or vaporized form. A seven-person, governor-appointed Medical Cannabis Board would advise the department regarding medical cannabis regulations.

Garrett said medical cannabis could provide significant relief for many of the state’s most vulnerable and ill citizens when traditional prescription drugs have failed.

“This is an opportunity to help some of Nebraska’s ailing children and adults who are out of options,” he said. “We’re asking that Nebraskans not be criminalized for seeking relief from their pain.”

Omaha Sen. Sara Howard offered an amendment, adopted 25-12, which replaced the bill. Under the amended bill, patients with qualifying conditions could apply to the department for enrollment in a newly created patient registry.

Qualifying medical conditions under the bill would include:
• amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) or severe and persistent muscle spasms, including those associated with multiple sclerosis (MS);
• epilepsy and seizures;
• pain, nausea and wasting associated with cancer;
• glaucoma;
• HIV or AIDS;
• Crohn’s disease; and
• Tourette’s syndrome.

Also eligible would be terminally ill patients with a probable life expectancy of under one year, if the illness or its treatment produces severe or chronic pain, nausea, severe wasting, hepatitis C, lupus, Huntington’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Lyme disease, spinal cord injury or opioid addiction.

Lincoln Sen. Colby Coash supported the bill. He said a ballot initiative to legalize all marijuana use would be imminent if the Legislature fails to pass LB643. Passing Garrett’s bill, he said, would give the state control in regulating the use of marijuana rather than “opening the door” to recreational marijuana use.

“This bill is about ending suffering for people who are sick, it’s not about getting high,” Coash said. “If and when [full legalization] goes on the ballot—and it will pass—the Legislature will not be able to catch up to [the associated regulatory issues].”

Sen. Matt Williams of Gothenberg opposed the bill. He said it represents a major philosophical shift for the state and should be considered cautiously.

“This is larger than just LB643. It’s the direction our state will take on legalizing a Schedule I drug, not just for medical purposes but potentially others as well,” he said. “We have to be smart with what we do and the direction we set.”

Papillion Sen. Bill Kintner also opposed LB643. He said medical marijuana likely will be legalized at some point, but too much is still unknown about potential dangers of cannabis.

“I’m looking for the major medical groups to come out and support [medical cannabis.] I think it’s coming, but we’re not quite there yet,” Kintner said. “We have to make sound decisions here but we also have to listen to doctors and scientists.”

Those applying for the registry would be required to provide basic identifying information as well as contact information for a participating health practitioner, designated caregiver or legal guardian.

They also must certify that they had an established relationship with the participating health practitioner prior to application for the registry, a diagnosis of a qualifying medical condition and a need, if any, for a designated caregiver to assist in the dispensing of medical marijuana.

Designated caregivers would be at least 21, agree to possession of cannabis only for purposes of assisting the patient, not be a caregiver for more than one patient unless they reside in the same home and pass a criminal background check. Parents or legal guardians would not be required to register with the department but would be subject to a background check.

LB643 would authorize DHHS to register only one cannabis manufacturer in each of the state’s three congressional districts. Each manufacturer would be required to contract with an independent laboratory—subject to approval by the department—to test the safety and efficacy of its product.

Additionally, the department could register up to four cannabis dispensaries in each congressional district. All medical cannabis would be dispensed by a licensed pharmacist.

Any county, city or village governing body would be empowered to adopt a resolution or ordinance prohibiting the operation of a manufacturer or dispensary or both within its boundaries.

An amendment offered by Omaha Sen. Heath Mello would authorize a transfer of $1.4 million in fiscal year 2016-17 and $1 million in FY2017-18 to the Medical Cannabis Regulation Fund to offset implementation costs of the bill. The funds would be repaid by June 30, 2023, with interest, by application and regulation fees levied on manufacturers and dispensaries.

The Mello amendment was adopted on a 26-12 vote.

Following a series of motions offered to extend debate, Garrett filed a motion to invoke cloture, or cease debate and take an immediate vote on the bill. The motion failed 30-15. Thirty-three votes were needed.

A failed cloture motion prevents further debate on the bill for the day. It is unlikely to be further debated this session.

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