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.

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

On Twitter @LJSLegislature.


State government reporter

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

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