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Times are changing, medical marijuana supporters tell Nebraska lawmakers
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Times are changing, medical marijuana supporters tell Nebraska lawmakers

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A fall severed her spinal cord, and a gunpoint robbery six months later shattered her state of mind. Sarah Lyon wasn't going to wait.

Paralyzed up to her chest from the fall and down 50 pounds, she prescribed herself a drug — marijuana — which helped her more than the 11 different pharmaceuticals doctors steered her toward, the Omaha woman said.

Within six months, she was back to healthy weight. The pot also helped ease her anxiety after the robbery and cut back the full-body spasms she'd experienced since her 2005 fall from the slide at a playground when she was 15.

"Times are changing, and people need to stand up for what is right for the greater good," Lyon told members of a legislative panel Friday, testifying in support of a bill that would make Nebraska the 24th state to legalize medical marijuana.

The bill (LB643), sponsored by Sen. Tommy Garrett of Bellevue, is the more comprehensive of two medical marijuana proposals being considered by the Legislature this year. The other, introduced by fellow Bellevue Sen. Sue Crawford, would allow the University of Nebraska Medical Center to treat people with severe epilepsy using a low-potency hemp oil.

Both bills could pass this year.

"This is not an either-or scenario before you," Crawford told members of the Legislature's Judiciary Committee.

Her proposal (LB390), which almost certainly faces the easier path, is co-signed by three members of the committee and has the support of the Nebraska Sheriffs' Association. But committee members made it clear they would weigh the bills independently, not against one another.

A majority of them would need to support either bill in order for it to advance to the full Legislature for debate.

"This committee will look at each bill on its own merits," said Lincoln Sen. Colby Coash, one co-signer of Crawford's proposal.

While her bill may have broader support in the Legislature, Garrett's drew the widest coalition of proponents during Friday's hearing: the wife of a man with brain cancer; a University of Nebraska Omaha student whose mother has multiple sclerosis but found relief with medical marijuana from Colorado; Lyon, who wants to continue her chosen treatment without fear of being caught and having her children taken away.

Garrett's bill drew the strongest opposition, too.

The Nebraska County Attorney's Association warned it would lead to more abuse. The Sheriffs' Association cautioned it could replace nonviolent offenders in Nebraska's prisons with violent ones. A lobbyist for the Nebraska Medical Association said while "perhaps marijuana holds promise" for certain conditions, more study on the plant is needed.

And the acting CEO of the state Department of Health and Human Services, Dr. Joseph Acierno, questioned marijuana as a form of treatment and said Garrett's bill sets a difficult timeline for HHS and "creates new work" for the agency without properly paying for it.

"I don't discount how they feel," Acierno said of supporters of the bill. "I'm looking in a broader perspective. ... I'm bringing issues to you where there isn't clarity."

Patients would need to visit a doctor three times before receiving a card to allow them to obtain marijuana at a dispensary. Dispensaries would need to be licensed by the state and have a pharmacist on site. Licensing fees and sales taxes would help cover the cost of implementing the bill, with an amendment Garrett offered the committee.

Conditions eligible for medical marijuana would include seizures, post-traumatic stress disorder, cancer, AIDS, Crohn's disease and multiple sclerosis. 

Garrett said his bill combines "the best parts" of medical marijuana bills passed in other states, and won't turn Nebraska into Colorado or California.

"The hysteria over this is just out of control," he said. "This is obscene. It's an obscenity.

"We argue and debate some of the most trivial things on the floor. Here's something we can do to help people."

Garrett's own father turned to marijuana after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer back in 1978. His oncologist said it would help with his nausea and appetite issues.

"It did exactly what the doctor said it would," Garrett said. "We've known a long time now about the medicinal value of marijuana.”

Reach the writer at 402-473-7234 or zpluhacek@journalstar.com. On Twitter @zachamiLJS.

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