Medical Marijuana Petition Moves Ahead; One-Plate Proposal Heard

Feb. 5, 2019, 6 p.m. ·

Sens. Anna Wishart and Adam Morfeld listen to a reporter's question (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

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Supporters of legalizing medical marijuana in Nebraska submitted ballot language Tuesday for the initiative they want to put before voters next year. A proposal to require only one license plate instead of two got a public hearing. And Sen. Ernie Chambers tied up the Legislature to make a point.

Supporters of medical marijuana have tried repeatedly, and so far unsuccessfully, to get the Legislature to legalize it. Tuesday, they took a step toward going around the Legislature to ask Nebraska voters to decide. Lincoln Sens. Anna Wishart and Adam Morfeld filed language with the Secretary of State’s office they want to appear on the ballot next year. Wishart said she would still prefer the Legislature pass the bill, LB110, she introduced this year. (For the latest version of Wishart's proposed bill, click here).But failing that, she wants the people of Nebraska to decide.

Wishart said she’s confident about the result. “Over 70 percent of Nebraskans support this issue and that was from a poll we did two years ago. I’d imagine it’s actually increased now that Utah, and Missouri and Oklahoma have also passed medical marijuana systems. My confidence in terms of my legislative colleagues passing LB110 is far lower than that,” she said.

Wishart says 32 states have already approved medical marijuana. Supporters say marijuana can alleviate symptoms of diseases ranging from epilepsy to cancer; opponents argue the state should wait for the federal Food and Drug Administration, and legalizing medical marijuana could lead to legalizing recreational marijuana, as in neighboring Colorado.

Morfeld said medical and recreational marijuana are separate issues. “We’re not Colorado. We’re Nebraska. And I think in Nebraska, people are sensible and they’re reasonable. And if they only want medical, they’re only going to keep a medical regime. And right now that’s all we’re advocating for – that families and children have relief to chronic pain and chronic illnesses,” he said.

Wishart and Morfeld are proposing a state constitutional amendment that would say Nebraskans have a right to use marijuana, or cannabis, to treat serious medical conditions if it’s recommended by a physician or nurse practitioner. They would leave it up to a future Legislature to fill in the details if voters approved.

The senators said putting the measure in the constitution would prevent legal foot-dragging that has occurred in some other states. To put a constitutional amendment on the ballot would require turning in petitions with valid signatures from 10 percent of the state’s registered voters -- about 130,000 signatures – by next July.

In the meantime, Wishart says she’s continuing to work on her bill by meeting with the Nebraska Medical Association and law enforcement to try and address their concerns. For now, the bill remains in the Judiciary Committee, which has to decide whether to send it to the full Legislature for debate.

Also Tuesday, the Transportation and Telecommunications Committee held a public hearing on the latest in a long line of proposals to require Nebraskans to have only one license plate on their motor vehicles, instead of two.

States that require only one plate (Source: Sen. Robert Hilkemann)

The bill’s sponsor, Omaha Sen. Robert Hilkemann, acknowledged law enforcement officials have resisted previous proposals because they say having two plates increases the chances that vehicles involved in crimes can be identified. But Hilkemann said owners of cars that aren’t made with a front license plate bracket can already use just one plate, if they pay an extra $100, and it seems unfair that some people can buy their way out of the requirement.

Loy Todd of the Nebraska New Car and Truck Dealers Association supported the proposal, and urged lawmakers to make a choice. “What it boils down to is simply a policy. Is it more important to address some of the legitimate concerns of law enforcement about having two places to look for another identifier on a motor vehicle, or to inconvenience the entire rest of the population of the state? And we think that the decision ought to fall down on the convenience and benefit of the public,” Todd said.

Jack Cheloha, representing the city of Omaha, said that city’s police want to keep the two-plate requirement. “A lot of times, if you think about it, there’s getaway cars that are parked outside of banks after a bank robbery or something like that. And through the course of investigation the police will interview various witnesses,” Cheloha said.

“A lot of times we find in very helpful if the witness can give us a license plate number of the car that was fleeing, and it’s nice to have … those two points of identification, whether it was on the front or the rear of the car,” he added.

The committee took no immediate action on the bill.

And Tuesday morning, Omaha Sen. Ernie Chambers tied up debate in the Legislature, offering amendments and speaking at length about the Bible, President Trump, and the Constitution.

Nominally, the tactic was to delay a bill by Sen. Mike Groene that Chambers said would shift taxes from rural to urban residents. But Chambers acknowledged the delay was part of the broader defensive strategy he employs quite frequently. “The less time there is on the clock, the less damage can be done by this Legislature and your governor,” he said.

Chambers also said he was delaying the bill because he had given his word that he would do so. But that left an opening for Sen. Mark Kolterman, one of whose bills Chambers had harassed the day before. “Sen. Groene’s bill is this bill, and you’re filibustering his bill, I understand that. So the next bill up is my bill. And yesterday, you indicated you’re going to give me a reprieve because you’ve already got your pound of flesh out of me. So does that mean you’re a man of your word; you’re going to let my bill go through?

That is negotiable. Does your bill have a committee amendment on it?” Chambers asked, referring to a procedural point to which he has also been objecting.

When Kolterman assured him there was no such amendment, Chambers relented, declaring “Senator, you got me.”

Chambers then let Groene’s bill come to a vote, and it advanced, 41-0. He let Kolterman’s bill, on retirement benefits come to a vote, and it advanced as well.

However, Chambers then finished out the morning engaging once again in what he calls “extended debate” on another Groene bill, dealing with electrical licenses.