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Former NU coach Osborne warns of marijuana dangers; hearing lasts into the night

Either it's a godsend for people with certain medical conditions or it's a danger to public safety. 

It depends on who you most believed Friday at a hearing on a bill (LB110) that would legalize medical marijuana, which is already legitimately available in 33 states. Or how much credence you gave to speakers at a news conference held earlier in the day in Gov. Pete Ricketts' hearing room, warning of the perils of wide-spread medical marijuana use.

Doctors don't even agree on the issue, but say they should be part of the discussion as the bill moves forward. 

On the supporters' side, people with serious and chronic medical conditions and injuries, or their mothers, a former senator, a pediatric radiologist, veterans and others told senators on the Legislature's Judiciary Committee about the benefits and need for the drug. 

Mothers of children with epilepsy or serious mental illness, law enforcement officials, a nonprofit opposed to legalization and a former state chief medical officer described the dangers.

Former Husker football coach Tom Osborne said at the news conference he believed it was a myth that marijuana is not addictive or dangerous. It affects memory, interferes with motor skills and affects the ability to stay focused.

He started testing players as a football coach, and many of those who tested positive for marijuana were not able to stop using it and usually left the team within six months, he said. 

He said the impact it will have on young people is his main concern.

“Research has shown that marijuana use appears to have a negative impact on adolescent brain development," he said. 

The bill's sponsor, Lincoln Sen. Anna Wishart, said that while Osborne is a legend in Nebraska in many ways, on the medical cannabis issue he is on the wrong side of history.

She opened the hearing on the bill, which would provide for the cultivation, processing and use of cannabis for medical purposes in Nebraska, saying it was one of the oldest cultivated plants and has been used medicinally for thousands of years.

More than 100 different cannabinoids have been identified in the plant. They work together with the body's own endocannabinoid system in pain relief, mood management, blood pressure and blood-sugar control, appetite, sleep cycles and inflammation. 

"A large and growing body of scientific evidence and research continues to be done across the world," she said. 

Of the states that have a comprehensive medical marijuana program, none has sought to reverse the programs, she said. In fact, many have expanded them.

Karen O'Keefe, of the Marijuana Policy Project, said medical cannabis poses far fewer risks than many available prescriptions that patients can get. More than 15,000 Americans die every year of opioid overdoses and have even died of over-the-counter painkillers. 

No one could cite any deaths from cannabis overdose. 

Dr. Kim Coleman, a Lincoln pediatric radiologist, had a personal interest in researching the drug because her grandson had a brain injury and subsequent seizures, and was on three anti-epileptic drugs that were "quite sedating."

With medical marijuana, his parents were able to get him off all three drugs and now he is free of seizures. But to do that, they have to live away from their families and support system, she said. 

As a physician and a scientist, Coleman said, there is evidence to have medical cannabis for specific medical conditions for some patients. She did ask for the state to have physician input as the bill goes forward. 

On the other side, Lincoln mother Mary Hilton told the committee about her daughter Anna Grace, 19, who has 30 to 40 petit mal seizures a day, but who sees the bill as dangerous legislation that would put sick and suffering people in the state into a giant medical experiment. 

"Until the day that the medical proof is out there that the benefits from cannabis products outweigh all the negative side effects that have already been mentioned here, it is dangerous for this state to be touting it and promoting it as though it's a good thing," Hilton said at the  news conference. 

Physicians don't know about marijuana, they haven't been trained in dosages, side effects, drug interactions and other aspects of medical marijuana, Hilton said. 

New gubernatorial appointee and committee member Julie Slama, who proffered the majority of questions to those testifying Friday afternoon, asked Hilton at the hearing if members of the Legislature — most of whom aren't doctors — should be able to safely approve currently controlled substances for medical use.

"I don't know how you would be able to do that," Hilton said. "And I also wonder, (if) it's marijuana first ... then what is the next thing?" 

Nebraska State Patrol Superintendent John Bolduc said legalization of marijuana is rife with unintended consequences. There’s been an increase in crashes and fatalities in those states where marijuana is legal, he said, and he believes it is not just because of population increases.

Luke Niforatos, chief policy adviser for Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a nonprofit opposed to marijuana legalization and commercialization, came to testify from Colorado, where the drug is legal for both medical and recreational use. 

"If you unleash the marijuana industry in your state, which is exactly what will happen if you legalize medical marijuana, you will have 'big tobacco' all over again," Niforatos said. "Big tobacco has invested over $13 billion in this industry." 

The former CEO of Purdue Pharma, which is said to have aggressively marketed opioid painkiller oxycontin, is now the CEO of one of the largest medical marijuana companies in the world, he said, and following the same playbook. 

Ricketts weighed in late in the day, saying the United States has the best system of medical research in the world, and pharmaceutical drugs should be tested by it to determine if they are safe and effective.

"I oppose attempts to circumvent this system, such as LB110, which the Legislature is currently considering," he said. "Public health depends on the integrity of our medical research process and practice, and legalizing marijuana without traditional medical trials gambles with the health and safety of the people of Nebraska.”

Wishart and Lincoln Sen. Adam Morfeld, a cosigner on the bill, have also taken steps to place a medical marijuana legalization measure on the 2020 ballot.


Quinn Sperling (left), 4, and her sister Elliot Sperling, 6, from Lincoln, shop for groceries in the Hy-Vee exhibit on Friday at Lincoln Children's Museum. Renovations to the museum will include a new cash register experience and partnerships with Smart Chicken and the Nebraska Beef Council. 

Trump's retreat: Shutdown ends without wall money, for now

WASHINGTON — Submitting to mounting pressure and growing disruption, President Donald Trump agreed to a deal Friday to reopen the government for three weeks, backing down from his demand that Congress give him money for his border wall before federal agencies get back to work.

Standing alone in the Rose Garden, Trump said he would sign legislation funding shuttered agencies until Feb. 15 and try again to persuade lawmakers to finance his long-sought wall. The deal he reached with congressional leaders contains no new money for the wall but ends the longest shutdown in U.S. history.

The Senate swiftly and unanimously approved the deal, and the House followed suit and Trump signed it Friday night.

Trump's retreat came in the 35th day of the partial shutdown as intensifying delays at the nation's airports and another missed payday for hundreds of thousands of federal workers brought new urgency to efforts to resolve the standoff.

The shutdown was ending as Democratic leaders had insisted it must — reopen the government first, then talk border security. "The president thought he could crack Democrats, and he didn't, and I hope it's a lesson for him," said the Senate Democratic leader, Chuck Schumer. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said of her members: "Our unity is our power. And that is what maybe the president underestimated."

Trump still made the case for a border wall and maintained he might again shut down the government over it. Yet, as negotiations restart, Trump enters them from a weakened position. Recent polls found Trump bore the blame for the shutdown.

"If we don't get a fair deal from Congress, the government will either shut down on Feb. 15, again, or I will use the powers afforded to me under the laws and Constitution of the United States to address this emergency," Trump said.

The president has said he could declare a national emergency to fund the border wall unilaterally if Congress doesn't provide the money. Such a move would almost certainly face legal hurdles.

As part of the deal with congressional leaders, a bipartisan committee of House and Senate lawmakers was being formed to consider border spending as part of the legislative process in the weeks ahead.

"They are willing to put partisanship aside, I think, and put the security of the American people first," Trump said. He asserted that a "barrier or walls will be an important part of the solution."

The deal includes back pay for some 800,000 federal workers who have gone without paychecks. The Trump administration promises to pay them as soon as possible.

As border talks resume, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he hopes there will be "good-faith negotiations over the next three weeks to try to resolve our differences."

Schumer said that while Democrats oppose the wall money, they agree on other ways to secure the border "and that bodes well for coming to an eventual agreement."

In striking the accord, Trump risks backlash from conservatives who pushed him to keep fighting for the wall. Some lashed out Friday for his having yielded, for now, on his signature campaign promise.

Conservative commentator Ann Coulter suggested on Twitter that she views Trump as "the biggest wimp" to serve as president.

Money for the wall is not at all guaranteed, as Democrats have held united against building a structure as Trump once envisioned, preferring other types of border technology. Asked about Trump's wall, Pelosi, who has said repeatedly she won't approve money for it, said: "Have I not been clear? No, I have been very clear."

Within the White House, there was broad recognition among Trump's aides that the shutdown pressure was growing, and they couldn't keep the standoff going indefinitely. The president's approval numbers had suffered during the impasse. Overnight and Friday, several Republicans were calling on him openly, and in private, to reopen the government.

The breakthrough came as LaGuardia Airport in New York and Newark Liberty International Airport in New Jersey both experienced at least 90-minute delays in takeoffs Friday because of the shutdown. And the world's busiest airport — Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport — was experiencing long security wait times, a warning sign the week before it expects 150,000 out-of-town visitors for the Super Bowl.

The standoff became so severe that, as the Senate opened with prayer, Chaplain Barry Black called on high powers in the "hour of national turmoil" to help senators do "what is right."

editor's pick
NU dodges government shutdown's more painful effects — for now

Friday's deal to temporarily reopen the federal government delayed the University of Nebraska from furloughing — or terminating — four dozen employees who work with low-income families across the state.

The agreement, announced between President Donald Trump and congressional leaders shortly after Friday's NU Board of Regents meeting wrapped up, will also keep the university from drawing upon its cash reserve to keep federal research projects moving forward uninterrupted.

University leaders will continue to monitor the "evolving situation," a spokeswoman said, particularly how the deal struck between congressional Republicans and Democrats affects NU's faculty, staff and students.

Earlier, as the stalemate in Washington entered its 36th day, NU President Hank Bounds described how the partial government shutdown's effects upon the university's operations were becoming increasingly grim.

"We are already feeling the impact," Bounds told regents, "and every day that goes by, the impact becomes more significant."

NU was preparing to give notice to as many as 48 Nebraska Extension educators and assistants that are paid through a federal education initiative tied to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as SNAP-Ed.

In addition to offering nutrition assistance, the food stamp program also provides education centered on school wellness, community gardens, healthy food pantries and child care to about 176,000 people across the state, said Mike Boehm, vice president of the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources.

"Food insecurity doesn't just sit in isolation," Boehm said. "It's tied to lots of complex issues related to poverty."

Through quarterly disbursements, the federal government funds Nebraska Extension's SNAP-Ed activities, Boehm said. The university received its last round of federal funding in December, enough money to keep the program running through the end of March.

While the shutdown continued, however, administrators examined whether they would be able to keep the SNAP-Ed programs going once federal funding dried up.

The university spends $185,000 every month to pay the full salaries and benefits of 34 extension assistants, partial compensation to 14 extension educators and programming costs related to SNAP-Ed.

A large majority of those employees work in the Lincoln and Omaha areas, Boehm said, while another concentration exists in the Tri-Cities region of Grand Island, Hastings and Kearney.

Weighing the options, administrators told the SNAP-Ed team a decision would be made whether to provide notice to up to 48 employees by the end of January.

NU is required to give 90 days of notice to employees before furloughing or eliminating their positions.

Also before Trump's announcement Friday, Bounds told regents that beginning in February, NU would also use its cash reserve to keep $6.5 million in federal research projects going until the government reopened.

The majority of that amount, roughly $5.5 million, is research funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the National Science Foundation at UNL, Chancellor Ronnie Green said.

NU typically uses its cash reserve to fund research projects each month before seeking reimbursement from the federal government, Bounds explained, adding federal agencies have indicated they will fulfill the promises they made in funding the research once the government reopens.

Subcontractors on federal grant awards, which must be paid promptly under state law, would have also been paid from NU's cash funds had a deal not been struck Friday.

All that threatened to further diminish NU's cash on hand, which is one metric used to measure the institution's financial health.

As NU worked to close what's now a $55 million recurring budget gap created through a combination of lost state appropriations and increased operational costs, the university used its cash reserve as a bridge until cuts could be made.

NU has about 173 days of cash on hand, which is about 50 days fewer than its peer institutions, according to spokeswoman Melissa Lee.

juliekoch / Journal Star file photo  

Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh sets his sights on Texas' Colt McCoy in the 2009 Big 12 Championship Game. His performance in that game earned Suh an invitation to the Heisman Trophy ceremony. He is the most-decorated Blackshirt in history, being named 2009 AP college player of the year, first-team all-American, Lombardi Award and Outland Trophy winner, and many other honors.