Marijuana legalization, decriminalization considered

The Judiciary Committee heard testimony Feb. 9 on two bills that would lift certain marijuana restrictions in the state.

Sen. Terrell McKinney
Sen. Terrell McKinney

LB634, introduced by Omaha Sen. Terrell McKinney, would allow for the commercial sale of recreational cannabis in Nebraska for individuals 21 and older. The bill would create a framework for growing, selling and distributing marijuana and would give priority to individuals seeking to start certain cannabis companies in low-income and disenfranchised communities and areas impacted by high rates of drug charges.

Among other provisions, the bill would decriminalize the possession, transport and purchase of no more than one ounce of cannabis by individuals 21 and over. It would prohibit smoking or otherwise consuming cannabis products in public spaces or motor vehicles.

Additionally, LB634 would allow for an individual to obtain clean slate relief — the removal of a qualified marijuana conviction from their record — if the offense was committed on or after Jan. 1, 2010, and if the offender completes their sentence and pays all court-ordered fees by June 1, 2024.

McKinney said Black people are four times more likely to be arrested for cannabis charges than whites even though white people are just as likely to sell and use cannabis. Cannabis prohibitions cause more problems than they solve, he said, and clean state programs can give many people a second chance at decent jobs and the ability to find housing and support their families.

“With the clean slate laws, we eliminate barriers by offering relief from systematic measures that have kept so many behind and [can introduce] them to a life where mistakes no longer define their futures,” McKinney said. “We can give them a shot at redemption.”

Bill Hawkins, director of the Nebraska Hemp Company, spoke in support of LB634. It’s time to start taxing and regulating marijuana users in Nebraska, Hawkins said, which he estimated is approximately 10 to 20 percent of the state’s population.

“By taxing and regulating [cannabis], we are taking it away from the black market,” he said. “LB634 is very strict and very detailed and it gives Nebraska a chance to stand up and accept the fact that the war on drugs has not worked and it’s time to end the prohibition of this plant.”

Sen. Justin Wayne
Sen. Justin Wayne

LB22, introduced by Omaha Sen. Justin Wayne, would go a step further and fully decriminalize the possession and use of marijuana in Nebraska. Items used or intended for use in the consumption, manufacture, cultivation or processing of marijuana would not be considered drug paraphernalia under the bill.

Wayne said marijuana has been used throughout history, and while there may be a level of risk of abuse should the drug become legal — as there is with painkillers or alcohol — the issue comes down to personal responsibility.

David Swarts of Palmyra testified in support of LB22. Where there is demand, Swarts said, there will be a supply. Decriminalization would allow individuals to grow cannabis for personal use, which would cut out marijuana companies and the black market, he said.

“[Marijuana] prohibition guarantees a market for cartels, the mafia and street gangs,” Swarts said. “Cannabis is not dangerous, but buying from the cartel is and, unfortunately, police actions to enforce the war on drugs can also be dangerous.”

Joe Nigro testified in support of both bills. Marijuana prohibition has turned millions of Americans into criminals and has provided the opportunity for organized crime to make millions of dollars, he said, all for a substance that is not nearly as harmful as alcohol.

“The prohibition of marijuana has been especially harmful for Black people,” Nigro said. “In Lancaster County, Black people are nearly seven times as likely [as white people] to be cited or arrested for marijuana and we’re not even the worst county.”

Spike Eickholt, testifying on behalf of the ACLU of Nebraska and the Nebraska Criminal Defense Attorneys Association, also spoke in support of both bills. Both proposals would be beneficial because they address decriminalization of marijuana or, in the case of LB634, provide marijuana regulation.

Additionally, Eickholt said, polls consistently show that Nebraskans want cannabis legalized in some form.

Roger Donovick, chief medical officer with the state Department of Health and Human Services, spoke in opposition to both bills. Currently, marijuana is not approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration for any medical purposes, he said.

“Increased usage [of marijuana] may lead to increased negative health impacts and a greater strain on our health systems within the state,” Donovick said. “Legalization and commercialization puts the health and safety of Nebraskans at risk.”

Lorelle Mueting, representing Heartland Family Service, also spoke against both bills. Sound public policy should be based on science and research with public safety at the forefront, she said, and not based solely on what people want.

“This … is not good public policy because it puts public safety at risk,” Mueting said. “The marijuana that this legislation would bring to our state is highly potent and highly addictive … marijuana is a psychoactive substance that causes a high, and when under the influence of THC, a person does not have the ability to make good decisions.”

Corey O’Brien, chief prosecutor at the Nebraska Attorney General’s Office, testified against the proposals. Legalization of marijuana is wrong for Nebraska and is unconstitutional, he said. Marijuana — the highly concentrated and potent THC products that would be legalized under the bills — is listed as a Schedule I drug under Nebraska state law and federal law, he said.

“Any bill that would conflict with the federal law violates the Supremacy Clause,” O’Brien said.

The committee took no immediate action on LB22 or LB634.

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