Marijuana advocates in Nebraska have traded in their rolling papers for initiative petitions.
That means voters may soon need to think deeply about the issues of medical and recreational marijuana use.
In Nebraska two groups are circulating initiative petitions to put the question on the ballot in 2018. A group with the limited goal of eliminating penalties for those caught with small amounts of pot has already circulated petitions.
Meanwhile Mark Elworth Jr., who ran as a Libertarian for governor in 2014, plans to circulate petitions to legalize marijuana entirely. Volunteers hope to gather enough signatures by the end of 2017 to show potential donors that “we’re serious,” Elworth said.
Four states and the District of Columbia already have legalized marijuana. Another five states – California, Massachusetts, Maine, Nevada and Arizona – will note on the issue in November. Polls show legalization leading in every state except Arizona.
Among the issues that Nebraska voters will consider when and if the proposals hit the ballot are the tax implications.
The Tax Foundation – yes, the same organization that is frequently is cited by governors and other elected officials as a Bible on tax issues -- recently calculated the potential tax revenue for each state if marijuana were legalized.
The foundation used sales per capita in Colorado and Washington and assumed a 25 percent effective tax rate to estimate that Nebraska would collect about $52 million a year. (Hmmm. That amount of annual revenue could provide significant property tax relief.)
The Wall Street Journal using a somewhat arcane methodology, suggested that Nebraska had a “medium” chance of legalizing pot. The state rated least likely to vote for legalization was Alabama.
If the question reaches the ballot in the Cornhusker State it would face implacable opposition from Attorney General Doug Peterson, who suing Colorado over its marijuana policies.
But there are public officials and other prominent voices on the other side of the issue.
Lancaster Public Defender Joe Nigro recently came out in favor of legalizing pot. “I simply take the position that prohibition has failed, and we shouldn’t treat a health issue in the criminal justice system,” Nigro said. Danielle Conrad of ACLU Nebraska said Nebraska spends more than $10 million a year on marijuana enforcement. She suggested that the state should update its laws to focus criminal justice resources on “real public safety threats, not small amounts of marijuana intended for personal use.”
Marijuana use in the Nebraska is estimated at 5.8 percent of adults, 7th lowest in the nation. Many more have had some personal experience, even if they did not inhale. The issue has been smoldering for decades.