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Marijuana

A clerk reaches for a container of marijuana buds for a customer at Utopia Gardens, a medical marijuana dispensary in Detroit. 

A series of ads produced by an anti-marijuana legalization organization are airing several times a day on radio stations across the state, part of what organizers say is an education campaign about the dangers marijuana poses.

Four separate 30-second radio spots were created for Nebraska, some of which mention medical marijuana woven with descriptions of children consuming marijuana-laced candy and similar incidents opponents say will increase in frequency with broader legalization.

In addition to Lincoln, ads have been airing in Kearney, Lexington, Norfolk and Sioux City, Iowa, radio markets since April, according to Federal Communications Commission records. More than $68,000 has been spent on the ads to date.

The April date marks when state lawmakers started deliberating whether or not to send a bill (LB110) from Lincoln Sen. Anna Wishart that would set a framework of rules for medicinal cannabis use in Nebraska to the floor of the Legislature for debate.

The ads continued to run after opponents successfully blocked Wishart’s bill in mid-May and as a petition drive collecting signatures to place a ballot initiative authorizing medical marijuana became the focus of efforts by Wishart and fellow Lincoln Sen. Adam Morfeld.

The petition drive, operating under the banner of Nebraskans for Sensible Marijuana Laws, and with some funding from the Marijuana Policy Project, started in February and has ramped up as the legislative session ended a week ago.

John Kuehn, who co-chairs the Nebraska chapter of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, a national anti-marijuana legalization organization, said the ads "are targeted based on issues as they stand in Nebraska."

Kuehn, who left the Legislature last year after deciding not to seek a second term, said the ads are part of an educational campaign “to inform Nebraskans about the broader issues of medical marijuana and the danger it poses.”

The ads from Smart Approaches to Marijuana do not mention, nor are they specific to any single political issue or potential ballot initiative in Nebraska, Kuehn added.

They are produced to counter what he called “inaccuracies that have been portrayed by pro-marijuana advocates within the mainstream media and on entertainment media about marijuana,” whether that be medicinal cannabis or recreational use of the drug.

“It’s an open-ended education effort and part of a statewide coalition that will continue as long as marijuana legalization attempts continue to put Nebraskans at risk,” he said, through traditional and social media, as well as public events.

Backers of the petition drive say they aren’t surprised the radio spots are continuing to air 17 months before the next general election and do not believe they are likely to sway any votes.

Wishart, who said she has not personally heard any of the commercials, said she’s fielded several phone calls from other supporters of the ballot measure who have.

A good number of those have been older Republican men, she said, as well as people not connected to the effort “in any major way.”

“We were prepared that when you’re running a ballot initiative, there is outside money that will come in and try to scare people away,” Wishart said. “But from feedback I’ve received in the past three years, this is an overwhelmingly popular issue.

“I think you’d be hard-pressed to find somebody who doesn’t know a person who would benefit from having access to marijuana for medical purposes,” she added.

Morfeld also hasn’t heard the advertisement, but said he has reviewed a transcript of its content.

“It’s the same kind of talking points that, quite frankly, do not resonate with Nebraskans,” he said, pointing to a poll done 18 months ago that showed broad support for medical marijuana legalization.

According to the November 2017 landline and wireless telephone survey of 403 likely voters conducted by Fairbank, Maslin, Maullin, Metz & Associates, three-fourths of Nebraskans supported a proposed medical marijuana ballot initiative.

Of that support, 52% said they “definitely” supported the proposal and 22% said they “probably” would support it, according to the California-based political polling firm specializing in helping Democratic and nonpartisan candidates, as well as ballot measure committees.

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The survey said support for a medical marijuana ballot initiative cut across all demographic subgroups in Nebraska, including 87% of Democrats and 68% of Republicans, while gaining majority backing among all ages, genders and regions.

The survey's margin of error was 4.9%.

Morfeld, who also helped lead the Medicaid expansion ballot initiative, said the early enthusiasm for the medical marijuana campaign exceeds that of the 2018 Medicaid measure Nebraska voters approved by a seven-point margin.

“In the best poll for Medicaid expansion, and we had three of them, we saw a 59 percent approval rating,” Morfeld said. “We would have died if we got over a 70 percent approval.”

Wishart said the group is focused on building a grassroots organization to gather the needed signatures to place an initiative on the November 2020 general election ballot.

While Nebraskans for Sensible Marijuana Laws has hired two campaign managers and will use paid signature collectors if needed, Wishart said the effort is volunteer-driven at this point.

“It’s really important to me this is as grassroots as possible so we can utilize the talents of as many local Nebraskans as possible,” she said.

Kuehn said Smart Approaches to Marijuana will also continue building a coalition of community and faith groups, law enforcement and medical experts to coordinate “what legalization means for public safety and overall health.”

The radio ads have been well-received, he added, informing Nebraskans about the marijuana industry, links to the tobacco industry, and what the organization feels is the true intention of the petition drive to legalize medical marijuana in the state.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or cdunker@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS.

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