Medical legalization advocates must collect at least 130,000 signatures by July 3 in order to secure a spot on the statewide November ballot. (AdobeStock)
Like a handful of other states pushing for cannabis reform this year, Nebraska’s efforts seemed destined to be thwarted by the coronavirus. Yet the state began reopening in early May, giving activists a two-month window to gather signatures to put a medical marijuana initiative on the November ballot.
The unexpected opportunity has re-ignited activists’ hopes and energies, but victory remains far from guaranteed.
On May 14, Nebraskans for Medical Marijuana effectively re-launched their campaign. The group is now in the midst of a socially-distanced blitz to gather roughly 130,000 signatures (10% of the state’s population) by July 3.
While the initiative authorizes the creation of a medical marijuana program, it does not dictate the terms of the program itself.
Currently, the state’s neighbors—not just Colorado, but Missouri, Iowa and potentially South Dakota as well—are making progress of their own. Yet thanks to its prohibitionist leadership, Nebraska remains one of only eleven states where cannabis remains fully illegal.
Bipartisan and cross-generational leaders
The effort is being spearheaded by a dynamic and unlikely duo: the young progressive state Sen. Anna Wishart (D) and the conservative former state Sen. Tommy Garrett (R). A 30-year age gap separates the two.
“Anna and Nebraskans for Medical Marijuana are busting a hump trying to get this over the line,” Garrett told Leafly. “It’s truly an uphill battle.”
Nebraska legislators rejected a previous bid
In 2015, while serving in the state legislature, Garrett sponsored LB 653, the state’s first medical marijuana bill.
Although he describes himself, a former Air Force officer, as a lifelong “goody two-shoes” who never experimented with cannabis, he became familiar with its medical benefits after his father-in-law used it to combat pancreatic cancer. Later, he met with Nebraskans whose children were suffering from epilepsy and Dravet syndrome; they begged him to sponsor the legislation.
Yet, as Garrett said, he had to water down the bill—limiting qualifying conditions and banning smokable cannabis—to get his reluctant colleagues on board. The bill still fell two votes short.
“This is a very conservative state and people are always afraid of stepping out of line, if you will, about quote unquote conservative values,” said Garrett. The bill failed despite the fact, he noted later, that “it’s easier to find marijuana within two blocks of the capitol than a parking place!”
“I wish the opposition wouldn’t be so close-minded,” he added. Opponents, Garrett said, are “mischaracterizing this as something people are going to go out and abuse. It’s totally asinine. It’s so frustrating.”
Governor is opposed to MMJ
While Garrett took pains to not name names, it’s clear that opposition starts at the top. Governor Pete Ricketts (R) is a vocal prohibitionist.
In an open letter penned this past January, Ricketts argued that the cannabis industry “wants to persuade people that the drug is not only harmless, but can be safely used as a medicine to relieve pain.”
“I firmly oppose legislative legalization and will veto any legislation that attempts to make marijuana use lawful in the Cornhusker State,” Ricketts added, although that veto power doesn’t extend to constitutional amendments like the proposed medical marijuana initiative.
A true statewide strategy
Nebraska requires all ballot initiative campaigns to gather signatures from 5% of the population in at least 38 of the state’s 93 counties, thus requiring activists to spread out beyond major cities like Omaha and Lincoln (you can follow along with their progress on their Facebook page).
Yet Garrett, for one, believes that there isn’t much of a divide between rural and urban Nebraskans when it comes to supporting the amendment. A 2018 poll conducted by the Marijuana Policy Project backs him up: 77% of Nebraskans said they were in favor of legalizing medical marijuana.
“When I was in the legislature we did a traveling roadshow to pitch this,” Garrett told Leafly. “Farmers and the ag community are pretty savvy. There was no big-time opposition in rural areas.”
“Farmers see wild marijuana growing in the fields all the time,” he added. “Young kids call it ‘ditchweed.’”
The success of the current campaign supports his argument. For instance, Sen. Wishart traveled to Burt County recently—where a golf tournament was taking place—and rounded up signatures from more than 5% of the county (pop. 7,000) in one fell swoop.
A big boost from ADOPT
Garrett is also the chair of a coalition called Adopt a Decrease in Oppressive Property Taxes (ADOPT) that gathered signatures for the initiative for two weeks before the lockdown began. Although he isn’t crazy about the name—“You’re gonna fix your budget by taxing sick people? C’mon,” he told Leafly—the organization packed quite a punch: ADOPT canvassers collected 50,000 verified signatures, which they handed off to Nebraskans for Medical Marijuana.
Thanks to those signatures, the campaign is now well past the halfway point, but still has a long way to go in a very short period of time.
“Do we have to be the last state [to legalize]?” Garrett said. “I have no doubt we’ll get there. I just wish it was sooner rather than later.”