Medicinal cannabis got several hours of legislative debate Wednesday evening before moving off the agenda, most likely for the rest of this waning session.
"Honestly, this was my colleagues' chance to do something, and I was giving them the decision on whether they wanted to take action or not," said Lincoln Sen. Anna Wishart, who introduced the legalization bill (LB110).
Wishart worked with a number of groups in the past few months to improve the bill, she said. Two of the changes she made in compromise were to eliminate the ability for patients to grow plants at their home, and to prohibit smoking the drug.
She said she was open to addressing people's concerns.
"We're crafting this together," she said. "This is a group project."
Wishart said she recognized that in order to get something through the Legislature you have to listen to a diversity of voices and adopt solutions for their concerns. She did that on a number of fronts.
In her opening, Wishart said cannabis has been used medicinally by humans for thousands of years. She introduced the bill, she said, on behalf of Nebraskans who have reached out to her in favor of cannabis reform. They included people who were old, young and middle-aged, who lived in urban and rural parts of the state.
On Wednesday night, several families who have lobbied for legalization for a number of years, were watching the debate.
Sen. Lynne Walz read testimony from one the moms who was present and watching from the balcony, Crista Eggers of Omaha, whose son Colton, 4, has severe, intractable epilepsy. She has epilepsy, herself, that caused uncontrolled seizures, despite every medication treatment and surgical option available.
"The pain of now watching my child go through this is almost unbearable," she said. "I would describe (his grand mal seizures) as the most terrifying things you will ever see."
Ten medications he has been on do nothing but cause a long list of side effects, she said.
"Please fight alongside of us, not against us," Eggers said in her testimony on the bill. "Colton's life and thousands of others depend on it."
Wishart said she considers the amended version of the bill to be one of the best public health models for medicinal cannabis in the country.
Sen. Sue Crawford of Bellevue attempted to amend the bill further by prohibiting legalization of edible cannabis products, such as candies and cookies, that children would be enticed to eat. Wishart said she would have supported that, too.
But there were too many senators who just couldn't join her.
Sen. Matt Williams of Gothenburg said senators need to separate fact from fiction in making their decisions on the bill, and look for proven processes.
"My constituents are dead set against this," he said.
During debate, opponents brought up the lack of approval by the federal Food and Drug Administration, the dangers when users of the drug drive impaired, and the medical and mental health dangers they have read or heard about with the drug.
In the past couple of weeks, including Wednesday afternoon, groups have shown up in the Capitol rotunda to oppose legalizing marijuana, no matter for what purpose. Some have come to support the bill. One of those groups, Moms Against Marijuana, brought a doctor who moved to Nebraska from Colorado, where the drug is legal both for recreational and medicinal purposes, to speak to senators and others gathered.
Dr. Monica Oldenburg, an anesthesiologist who practices in Lincoln, said use of the drug in Colorado wasn't widespread for the first five years it was legal. But in 2009, when dispensaries became commonplace, she began seeing in her medical practice more patients who were using it, saying it helped them sleep or helped their asthma.
Oldenburg said that when recreational marijuana was approved in 2012, most doctors were neutral.
"But then the tsunami hit. Overnight it seemed like a quarter of my patients were daily users," she said.
She went on to say it changed not only her practice of medicine but her home life. So she and her husband quit their jobs and uprooted six angry kids and moved to Nebraska. Now she is trying to ensure it isn't legalized here.
Gov. Pete Ricketts also opposes the bill, and wrote a column about it last week.
"Once the marijuana industry puts roots down here, Nebraska will be under pressure to legalize recreational use," Ricketts said.
Wishart had given the bill less than a 30 percent chance of getting through the Legislature. She and Lincoln Sen. Adam Morfeld have already begun gathering signatures on a petition initiative to go on the 2020 general election ballot, and she gives that an 80 percent chance of passing. If it does pass by a vote of the people, it would have far fewer controls.
Morfeld also said this was the Legislature's last chance to pass a reasonable and narrowly tailored medical cannabis law. The polling he has seen -- at least three polls -- is off the charts in support of legalization, he said.
If the senators do nothing, Wishart said, they are sticking their heads in the sand, understanding that people in the state are consuming cannabis illicitly.
"But we are preventing them from actually working with a health care professional to do it the right way and the healthy way," she said.