LINCOLN — Supporters of legalizing medical cannabis have struck out in the Nebraska Legislature for five years straight, with the latest proposal falling victim to a filibuster this spring.

In its wake, those supporters are pouring their energy into an initiative petition drive that would bypass lawmakers and take the legalization issue directly to Nebraska voters.

The response so far has been much more encouraging.

State Sen. Anna Wishart of Lincoln, a co-sponsor of the Nebraskans for Sensible Marijuana Laws petition, said people lined up to sign the petitions last weekend during circulators’ first appearance at Lincoln and Omaha farmers markets.

Before the weekend was over, the volunteers had collected about 1% of the signatures needed for the drive. A volunteer in Norfolk collected 200 signatures on his own.

And 70 people responded within an hour to a call for volunteers, she said.

The petition drive aims to put a proposed constitutional amendment on the 2020 general election ballot that would give Nebraskans the right to use medical cannabis for serious medical conditions, subject to “reasonable laws, rules and regulations.”

“The issue really sells itself,” Wishart said. “You’d be hard-pressed to find someone in this state who hasn’t known someone who benefited from medical marijuana.”

But opponents of medical cannabis also have been working. Smart Approaches to Marijuana Nebraska launched a series of radio advertisements on stations across the state in late May.

The ads raise health and safety concerns about marijuana, including both medical and recreational marijuana.

Former State Sen. John Kuehn of Heartwell, co-chair of the opposition group, argued that the ads make no distinction between the two because medical marijuana is part of a strategy by the marijuana industry to win acceptance for recreational marijuana.

He said the radio ads are part of a broad educational campaign and are not targeted at the petition drive.

Kuehn downplayed supporters’ arguments that a strong majority of Nebraskans favor the legalization of medical cannabis. He said opponents have found that people will change their minds once they learn more.

“Most Nebraskans don’t know the other side of the story,” he said. “We are going to continue forward as long as this issue continues to be a threat to Nebraska and to Nebraska families.”

Opponents have Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts on their side, as well as legendary Husker football coach Tom Osborne. Ricketts expressed confidence that a ballot measure could be defeated once Nebraskans are educated about the dangers of marijuana.

But Wishart questioned the governor’s conclusion.

“He’s living in an alternative universe,” she said, adding that some polls have shown support as high as 80% among Nebraska voters.

Before voters can weigh in, however, the petition drive must collect valid signatures from 10% of registered voters, or more than 120,000 people. Signatures are due the first week of July 2020.

Petition organizers recently hired two field coordinators to manage the signature gathering. All other circulators so far are volunteers.

Wishart said she expects the drive will need paid circulators eventually but leaders want to remain as grassroots, Nebraska-based as possible.

The drive has received some financial backing from the Marijuana Policy Project, based in Washington, D.C. The group has helped legalize medical cannabis in other states and has agreed to help the Nebraska petition effort.

Currently, 34 states allow medical cannabis use. Another 12, including Iowa, allow medical use of cannabidiol, or CBD, products. Such products have very low levels of tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, the chemical compound that produces the marijuana high.

As of May 30, Nebraska allows the use of CBD products if they are derived from hemp. The products became legal when Ricketts signed a bill legalizing the production and use of hemp, marijuana’s low-THC plant cousin.

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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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