Legalizing Marijuana, Allowing Local Health Directives Discussed

Feb. 19, 2021, 5:24 p.m. ·

Sen. Justin Wayne discusses legalizing marijuana Friday (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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Arguments about personal choice and the economic benefits of legalizing marijuana were met with health and law enforcement concerns in a public hearing Friday. And Senators considered a proposal to give local public health departments the power to issue directed health measures.

Sen. Justin Wayne introduced the proposed state constitutional amendment to legalize marijuana for Nebraskans 21 and older. If it’s approved by the Legislature, voters would decide on it next year. Wayne said more than 128 million Americans have tried marijuana, and legalizing it would give the state an economic boost. And he said acting now would let Nebraskans, rather than multinational corporations, to reap the benefits.

“It’s going to happen sooner or later. The feds are moving in that direction. And either we can allow local business to participate, or we can wait for Pepsi and Coca-Cola to come in and buy us out,” Wayne said.

Lancaster County Public Defender Joe Nigro supported the proposal and said current laws against marijuana are enforced unfairly, with Blacks several times more like than Whites to be arrested. Nigro said one reason was the politics behind former President Richard Nixon’s war on drugs in the 1960’s and 70’s, as described in a 2016 interview with his former domestic policy advisor John Erlichman.

“We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be against the Vietnam War or black. But by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did,” Nigro quoted Erlichman saying.

Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine, speaking for the country attorneys’ association, opposed the proposal. He urged senators to listen to the experts.

“The statement (that) marijuana is addictive and it’s harmful has been made by the World Health Organization, the National Academy of Sciences, the National Institute of Health, the American Society for Addiction Medicine, the American Medical Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Child (and) Adolescent Psychiatry,” Kleine said.

Other opponents predicted legal marijuana would be diverted to the black market to avoid taxes, similar to what’s happened in Colorado and other states. And State Patrol Superintendent John Bolduc said it would harm public safety.

“The diversion of legal marijuana to the black market will negatively affect our community and likely result in an increase in drugged and motor vehicle fatalities,” Bolduc said.

Supporters said the issue should be left up to voters to decide; opponents said senators should use their judgment to keep it off the ballot.

Also Friday, the Health and Human Services Committee heard a proposal by Sen. Tony Vargas to give local public health departments power to issue directed health measures. Vargas said the current system has problems.

“Under our laws, directed health measures from public health departments are required to be approved by the state. And unfortunately even though all the scientific and medical evidence and data supports the directed health measures that our public health departments wanted to issue, they were not approved, and therefore not enacted. The reasons they were not approved were purely political,” Vargas said.

Health directors supporting the proposal said as COVID-19 spread last year, some wanted to enact mask mandates or stay-at-home orders, but were turned down by Gov. Pete Ricketts and the state’s chief medical officer Dr. Gary Anthone.

Eventually, some cities enacted mask mandates, using their power to create ordinances. But Tana Fye, an attorney for Two Rivers and Southwest Nebraska Public Health Departments, said city officials have complained they lack the expertise to make those decisions.

However Christy Abraham, testifying for the League of Nebraska Municipalities, objected to a portion of the bill that would take power away from cities.

“The authority to help prevent the control and spread of dangerous diseases has been in statute as an authority for municipalities for decades and decades. And what this bill does is for certain classes of cities, it just outright repeals that authority,” Abraham said.

Teresa Anderson, director of the Central District Health Department, said the system now doesn’t work well.

“The current process is extremely cumbersome and inefficient. It decreases our effectiveness. We are unable to respond in a timely fashion. We miss opportunities to mitigate spread of disease while we wait for permission to practice public health,” Anderson said.

Ashley Newmyer of the state Department of Health and Human Services opposed the proposal.

“While responding to the coronavirus pandemic, we have seen that a cohesive response strategy is key to stopping the spread of the virus and keeping Nebraskans safe and healthy. If LB637 is enacted, it would be impossible for the state to coordinate a united front on any statewide health emergency,” Newmyer said.

Supporting the bill, Adi Pour, director of the Douglas County Health Department, questioned the need for a uniform statewide policy.

“This may not always be the case, since rural and urban areas are different and may have different infectious disease outbreaks,” Pour said.

Several testifiers said they objected to the bill because it gives government more power. Among them was Mary Hamilton.

“I am totally opposed to giving any kind of jurisdiction to a division of government to control our lives any further and impose impossible mandates for eternity,” Hamilton said.

The committee took no immediate action on the bill.

Also Friday, Sen. Bruce Bostelman introduced a resolution calling for the Natural Resources Committee to look into the recent cold-weather power outages.

“I think what we need to do is have public power come in and explain what happened, and how it happened, and why it happened, and what they’re going to do about it in the future to prevent it from happening again,” Bostelman said.

The outages were ordered by the Southwest Power Pool, a 17-state transmission system Nebraska belongs to. Bostelman said he thinks the role of the power pool is one question the committee should look into.

Editor's note: The quote attributed to Erlichman was originally published in 2016, but reported to have been said in a 1994 interview. Erlichman died in 1999.