Medical Marijuana Bill Heard; Military Retiree Tax Break Advances

March 10, 2021, 6:03 p.m. ·

Sen. Anna Wishart testifies Wednesday (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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In what has become an annual ritual, advocates of legalizing medical marijuana clashed with foes at a legislative hearing Wednesday. And lawmakers advanced a bill to exempt military retirees from the Nebraska income tax.

Sen. Anna Wishart presented her proposal to legalize medical cannabis to the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee. For Wishart, it was her fifth year in a row bringing the bill. And she said while it hasn’t changed much, support has grown, evidenced by nearly 200,000 people signing an initiative to put the question on the ballot last year, only to have it blocked in court.

“If this bill fails to pass, it is because of political pressure from a few who wield their power to stamp out the will of the people,” Wishart said.

One leading opponent is Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts. In a news conference before the hearing, Ricketts said in states that have legalized marijuana, it’s harming young people.

“This is a dangerous drug that will impact our kids. If you legalize marijuana, you’re going to kill your kids,” Ricketts said.

That was a far cry from the perspective of Christa Eggers, who testified in favor of the bill at the hearing. Eggers said cannabis could help her six year old son Colton, who suffers from epileptic seizures.

“The pain of watching our children continue to suffer is almost unbearable. However what’s even worse is knowing that there’s a medication out there, proven to provide relief. But we are made to be criminals in order to access it,” Eggers said.

Speaking at the news conference before the hearing, former Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne talked about how the program tested players for drugs starting in 1985, and dismissed players if they tested positive three times. Despite having their education and chance to play football on the line, Osborne said most of those who tested positive initially wound up leaving.

“When crunch time came – big test coming up, big scrimmage, something – they would tend to revert to those old habits. So don’t believe that this something that is not addictive – that it has no impact over time. Because it does, and I saw it, firsthand,” Osborne said.

But one of those testifying for the bill was Grant Wistrom, a former Husker who played under Osborne and then for nine years in the National Football League. He now hold medical marijuana dispensary and manufacturing licenses in Missouri.

“I started medicating with marijuana early in my NFL career. I noticed that if I consumed marijuana after games, I slept better, felt more recovered, dealt with less pain and was able to begin to prepare to play again more quickly than without it. Recognizing the positive benefits I was receiving from consuming cannabis, I began to research other benefits of cannabis and found that people very close to me were dealing with issues that could be helped by medicating with marijuana. I helped procure marijuana for a family member suffering from PTSD from serving our country, and a relative suffering from terminal cancer. In each case I witnessed the relief they experienced from medicating, and knew then that I had to be an advocate for this plant,” Wistrom said.

Dr. Amanda McKinney, formerly a physician in Beatrice who now teaches about cannabis at Doane University, also testified in favor.

“While I recognize that there are concerns over addiction, the truth is that cannabis has a much lower risk of dependence than other drugs, like alcohol. Cannabis has a lifetime dependence risk of 9 percent, while for alcohol, it is 16 percent,” McKinney said.

Dr. John Massey of the Nebraska Medical Association testified against the bill. Massie said he isn’t dogmatically opposed, but does have concerns.

“The NMA believes there’s currently limited evidence that does suggest cannabis derivatives can have therapeutic benefits for patients with certain medical conditions. But that negative long-term effects and abuse risks remain concerning,” Massie said.

The committee took no immediate action, although Wishart said she has enough votes to get it out of committee. Wishart said 47 states allow some form of medical cannabis, adding there will be another petition drive for it next year. And cannabis activist Bill Hawkins said he filed an initiative to allow Nebraskans access to all forms of cannabis Wednesday morning.

Also Wednesday, senators advanced a bill to make military retirees exempt from state income tax. About 13,000 retirees would benefit, at a cost to the state of about $13 million a year. Sen. Tom Brewer, sponsor of the bill, predicted it would help keep and attract military installations.

“Nebraska has struggled over the last decades to assure the securing of Offutt Air Force base and US Stratcom. Because of this bill I think our opportunity’s there to keep Stratcom and the ability to still make a play for Space Command will be enhanced by this bill,” Brewer said.

Sen. Tim Gragert said the proposal would help keep a skilled workforce in Nebraska, and would be a way to express gratitude, “by showing our service members how much we appreciate the sacrifice of their most valuable asset: their time. Leaving their families for months and even for years at a time to protect our families, and freedom,” Gragert said.

Sen. Curt Friesen questioned how the proposal fits into overall tax policy. Friesen said the Nebraska Legislature keeps on carving out exemptions to state taxes, putting more pressure on local property taxes.

Friesen also said military retirees – those who served 20 or more years – make up only about 12-14 percent of veterans in the state. Sen. Mike Groene picked up on that point, saying he’d support the bill, but wanted who benefits to be described accurately.

“As long as nobody refers to this bill as (benefitting) ‘veterans.’ My brother served in southeast Asia. A lot of my friends that were older than me served in Vietnam. I was lucky enough by the time I turned 18, the draft didn’t exist. Those are veterans. They’re the ones who walk around with handicaps, the injuries. They don’t get any military retirement. This is not a veterans’ retirement bill. This is a career military retirees’ bill,” Groene said.

Brewer is also a wounded veteran, having served in Afghanistan and Iraq and received a Purple Heart. He, Gragert, and Sen. Bruce Bostelmen are the three senators who will benefit directly from the bill. All three voted for it, as did 42 of their colleagues, giving the bill 45-0 first-round approval.

It still needs to pass two more rounds of voting before being sent to Gov. Pete Ricketts, who asked Brewer to introduce it and included room for it in his budget proposal.