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The Legislature spent two hours Wednesday talking about medical cannabis, a time imposed by the senator who introduced the bill, to provide education to lawmakers, especially the 18 new to the office who have not been through previous debates.

"It's a very complicated issue," said Lincoln Sen. Anna Wishart. "It's one of those issues that I think really highlights what we as representatives are sent here to do, to be visionaries, and put in place and deal with the complicated systems."

Now, like every other bill this session, Wishart will have to talk to senators and show she has 33 votes to break a filibuster before it will return for debate.

The bill (LB622) maps out how medical cannabis would be produced and dispensed, including a patient registry. It could not be smoked, but only dispensed as liquid, pill, vapor from liquid or oil, topical creams or lotions, or suppositories.

It could be prescribed for only qualifying conditions or illnesses, including cancer with severe pain, nausea and vomiting, or wasting; glaucoma; AIDS; seizure disorders; ALS; Crohn's disease and others.

Hanging over the lawmaking aspect of medical cannabis is a petition drive that could put the legalization of marijuana on the ballot as soon as 2018. 

Bill Hawkins, who advocates for industrial hemp growers, hopes Wishart's bill will pass because it would give protection to patients and doctors. But a group of people will exercise their right to work toward an initiative petition, he said, to allow people in Nebraska to use all parts of marijuana, not limited to medical uses. 

If the petition drive and subsequent vote are successful, lawmakers will lose their ability to control how medical marijuana is manufactured, dispensed and sold, Hawkins said. And the state would lose any fees and taxes that could be attached. 

"The only way to keep our communities and our kids safe is to put it in a tax and regulated system so that they have to show ID, and we can fund drug education programs," he said.

He believes the petition drive needs about 150,000 signatures, but could easily get 200,000, he said. 

David Swarts, a board member with Nebraska Families 4 Medical Cannabis, said while he may not be comfortable with Hawkins petition language, the groups will be able to come together on the initiative petition. 

Still, he's not giving up on the bill. People are learning and moving toward support of the issue, he said.

LB622 provides for a patient registry, and a medical cannabis board that would advise the Department of Health and Human Services on rules, regulations and policies. 

It expands the number of producers and processors allowed to 10 per congressional district and eight compassion centers per district to drive a competitive market for a higher quality product at lower prices. And it removes the requirement that a patient have a bona fide relationship with a doctor recommending medical cannabis.

Lincoln Sen. Mike Hilgers said the drug doesn't have enough research and proof of its effectiveness. The Legislature is not the place to make clinical decisions about a medical drug.

Lincoln Sen. Suzanne Geist asked what other drugs have been debated and approved by the Legislature. 

"I don't know why we're even talking about it in this body," said Sen. Mike Groene of North Platte. 

But Lincoln Sen. Adam Morfeld believes the bill provides a good middle ground. It allows people to get the medical care they need and an opportunity to exercise states' rights, he said. 

At its hearing, proponents of legalizing medical cannabis included doctors, veterans with combat injuries, out-of-state experts, and people who either suffered from diseases and conditions that could be treated with the drug, or had loved ones who do.

The opponents were mostly government and law enforcement officials, including Lancaster County Sheriff Terry Wagner, Nebraska Assistant Attorney General David Lopez, Nebraska Chief Medical Officer Dr. Thomas Williams, and Joni Cover, executive director of the Nebraska Pharmacists Association.

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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