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Doug Peterson and Pete Ricketts

Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts (right) and Attorney General Doug Peterson.

ERIC GREGORY/Lincoln Journal Star file photo

As the Legislature waits to begin first-round debate on a bill that would legalize medical marijuana, Gov. Pete Ricketts sent a message Tuesday that signaled his intent if it passes.  

In a column headlined "Marijuana is a dangerous drug," Ricketts said the medicinal virtues of marijuana are still much debated. 

During a committee hearing on the bill, the Cannabis Compassion and Care Act (LB643) introduced by Sen. Tommy Garrett of Bellevue, his administration expressed concerns about the legislation, Ricketts said.

"And those concerns have only grown with the Judiciary Committee’s decision to move it to the floor," the governor wrote.  

Twenty-four other states, including Colorado, the District of Columbia and Guam have legalized marijuana in some form, he said. 

A section of the federal spending bill passed in December bars the U.S. Justice Department from spending money to prevent states or the District of Columbia from implementing laws allowing medical use of cannabis. And a bill introduced in the House of Representatives would reschedule marijuana from a Schedule I to a Schedule II drug and would allow states to adopt their own medical marijuana laws. 

Nebraskans have been able to observe the effect of legalization in states, particularly Colorado, and the spillover here, Ricketts said in the column. Sheriffs in western Nebraska say it has placed a greater burden on law enforcement, he said.

Ricketts called legalization for any purpose a risky proposition.

"In spite of efforts to legalize marijuana for recreational or medicinal use in other states, marijuana remains a federally banned controlled substance whose medicinal value has not been tested," Ricketts said. 

Garrett said he honestly didn't know where to start with Ricketts' column. 

"This is reefer madness all over again," he said. 

While Ricketts pulled out studies he said show marijuana's detrimental effects, Garrett said he could show the governor all kinds of studies and information that support use of medicinal forms of marijuana. 

But Ricketts defended the process in place through the Federal Drug Administration to determine whether a drug constitutes safe and effective medical treatment. Any legalization effort outside the process, he said, puts Nebraskans at risk.

Legalization by legislation is no substitute for rigorous FDA review, he said, and marijuana should not receive special treatment. It should be subject to the same examination of other drugs by the FDA to study potential adverse effects, appropriate treatment schedules, drug interactions and long-term effects. 

While senators have the best interests of Nebraskans in mind, scientific and pharmaceutical experts should fully study marijuana’s merits, Ricketts said. 

That was hard for families living with loved ones who they believe could benefit -- or could have benefited -- from medical marijuana. They have been coming to the Capitol since Garrett introduced the bill in January to talk to senators about passing it.

On Tuesday, six people met with Ricketts and Chief Medical Officer Dr. Joseph Acierno for half an hour to plead their cases. They have children with severe epilepsy, a husband who died of brain cancer or they themselves suffer from multiple sclerosis and chronic pain.  

"It's really hard to pour your heart out, tell your story to try and give a politician a glimpse of your life, and still be told that the stance is that it has to go through the FDA process, especially when the FDA has already failed your child," said Shelley Gillen, whose son Will has severe epilepsy. 

"Our loved ones, many of them don't have time to wait for the FDA, especially when every single day is a risk," Gillen said. 

Garrett said politicians are quick to condemn Washington for being ineffective and broken, including the Internal Revenue Service and the Environmental Protection Agency.

"But when it suits our purposes, we'll talk about how great the FDA is. Give me a break," Garrett said. 

The governor also attempted to tie K2, a synthetic marijuana chemically developed to replicate the effects of recreational marijuana and tied to recent overdoses in Lincoln and Bellevue, into the discussion of medical marijuana. 

But there's nothing remotely associated with marijuana in K2, Garrett said. 

"This defies logic," he said. 

And comparing medical marijuana to recreational marijuana is also questionable, he said. Some forms of medical marijuana have low to nonexistent levels of THC, the chemical responsible for most of marijuana's psychological effects. 

"I'm so sick and tired of fighting the disinformation," Garrett said. 

Reach the writer at 402-473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com. On Twitter @LJSLegislature.

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State government reporter

JoAnne Young covers state government, including the Legislature and state agencies, and the people they serve.

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