LINCOLN — Two men who argued opposite policies on legalizing medical marijuana changed few minds on the issue during a Thursday evening discussion in Lincoln.

Matthew Schweich, deputy director of the Marijuana Policy Project, advocated for a petition drive seeking to legalize medical marijuana in Nebraska. Luke Niforatos, chief of staff for Smart Approaches to Marijuana, argued against the measure.

But Schweich and Niforatos managed to abide by the ground rules of the event, namely to take a civil approach and “don’t be a jerk.”

The two even found a few points of agreement during a conversation guided by Alex McKiernan, the founder and president of the Lydia Foundation for Social Engagement. The foundation was the chief sponsor for the Good Talks for the Good Life event, an effort to promote thoughtful, reasoned dialogue on divisive issues.

McKiernan started the discussion by saying he hoped the Good Talks series can demonstrate that people can disagree while building community together.

“Our goal tonight is really to simply celebrate and support our democracy,” he said.

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During the event, he pushed Schweich and Niforatos to go beyond their usual talking points, starting by challenging each to summarize the other’s position. At times, he stopped to take an instant audience poll using a special website.

Niforatos said the pro-medical marijuana position is that, if medical marijuana has some efficacy, people should have access to use it. He said his opponent makes an argument about the number of patients who need help, along with the need for an alternative to the opioid drugs that have fueled a drug crisis.

Given a chance to comment on that summary, Schweich added the argument that many Nebraskans are using medical marijuana now but are getting it from other states or on the black market.

In his summary of the anti-medical marijuana position, Schweich said his opponent believes that more research is needed before allowing the use of medical marijuana and that legalizing medical marijuana through a petition drive or legislation creates a slippery slope leading to legalization of recreational marijuana.

Niforatos said he puts more emphasis on the need for sound public health policy, using science and the established drug approval process to approve medications instead of making political decisions.

The petition drive underway seeks to put legalization of medical marijuana on the November 2020 ballot. Supporters turned to the petition process after striking out in the Legislature over multiple years.

Nebraskans for Sensible Marijuana Laws has until early July to collect valid signatures from 10% of registered voters, or more than 120,000 people, to get the proposed constitutional amendment before voters. The effort has support from the Marijuana Policy Project.

Opposition efforts are underway as well. Smart Approaches to Marijuana Nebraska has run radio advertisements on stations across the state, while Gov. Pete Ricketts and Attorney General Doug Peterson have been vocal about the dangers of marijuana.

Afterward, McKiernan rated the night as a success. He said Schweich and Niforatos, whose jobs are to get out certain messages, both stepped out of their usual talking points at times.

Former State Sen. Laura Ebke of Crete, one of the Lydia Foundation board members, agreed.

“They disagreed, but they did it civilly,” she said.

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Martha Stoddard keeps legislators honest from The World-Herald's Lincoln bureau, where she covers news from the State Capitol. Follow her on Twitter @StoddardOWH. Phone: 402-473-9583.

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