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Tragedy strikes campaign to legalize medical marijuana in Nebraska

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A bill to legalize and regulate medical marijuana has been introduced by an unlikely senator.

A string of tragic events has left a citizen-led campaign to legalize medical marijuana in Nebraska in search of donations. 

Nebraskans for Medical Marijuana lost two individuals who were expected to make a major contribution to the current legalization campaign.

One of those donors, who contributed to the group's 2020 campaign that nearly made it onto the ballot, died in a plane crash, according to state Sen. Anna Wishart of Lincoln, a co-sponsor of the campaign. A second person, who was expected to make a contribution, was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

The campaign, in an email to supporters Wednesday, described the loss as a "huge setback."

Despite the tragedies, Wishart was still confident the group could meet its $500,000 fundraising goal by May 1. She declined to say how much the campaign has raised so far, but as of Feb. 28, the campaign had a cash balance that was less than $30,000.

"We have done extraordinary things before," Wishart said.

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In 2020, the campaign raised about $2.5 million overall, securing more than 182,000 signatures — well above the 87,000 signatures needed to put the issue on the ballot. Though it surpassed the requirement, it was disqualified by the Nebraska Supreme Court for containing more than one subject.

This time around, the campaign made two petitions, which each require valid signatures from 7% of registered voters by July 7 to get on the ballot. Based on March registration figures, each petition would need nearly 87,000 signatures. The focus of the two petitions is derived from the concerns outlined by the state Supreme Court in 2020.

The first petition would require the Legislature to enact new statutes protecting doctors who recommend medical cannabis and patients who possess or use the product from criminal penalty, the Journal Star reported. The second would require lawmakers to pass a bill protecting private entities that produce and supply cannabis for medical purposes.

Wishart believes each petition has about 25,000 signatures so far, and said signature gathering is one of the main reasons why donations are so crucial to these campaigns. She said the lion's share of donations are put toward hiring professionals to collect signatures. 

Without adequate funding, Wishart said it would not be impossible for the campaign to succeed, but it would be extraordinary. She said very few citizen-led campaigns in Nebraska have succeeded without sufficient funding. 

"It would take every person in this state who cares," Wishart said.

Legalization efforts have faced opposition from Gov. Pete Ricketts, who has called marijuana a "dangerous drug."

Earlier this year, the governor appeared in an ad sponsored by Smart Approaches to Marijuana Nebraska, a group that opposes legalization. In the ad, Ricketts argued that the only difference between “medical” and “recreational” marijuana is the terminology.

Wishart said the campaign will increase its fundraising efforts and ramp up volunteering to make up for the lost donations.

About half of the campaign's recent contributions came from individuals, including nearly $5,000 in donations of $250 or less, according to its Feb. 28 campaign statement. Counting cash and in-kind contributions, companies including Hergert Oil Company, the Marijuana Policy Project and CBD Remedies also donated nearly $10,000 to the campaign.

In terms of cash, the medical marijuana ballot campaign is trailing other high-profile ballot initiatives, including one to raise the minimum wage and another to institute voter ID requirements. The minimum wage campaign reported just more than $129,000 cash on hand at the end of January, while the voter ID group reported nearly $61,000 cash on hand at the end of February.

In 2020, the medical marijuana campaign reported $6,774 cash on hand in late February, but it also reported more than $81,000 in year-to-date spending, according to a campaign finance report. At the end of February, the current effort reported a little more than $23,000 in year-to-date expenses.

The 2020 campaign received some of its largest contributions in the late stages of the signature gathering effort. 

Some of the largest donations came from Michigan-based cannabis business Sozo Companies, which contributed a total of $300,000 in June of 2020, according to campaign disclosure documents. An Elkhorn company called AgMed LLC contributed $50,000, and Heartland Strategy Group, a consulting firm with offices in Nebraska and Washington, D.C., contributed more than $969,000 in in-kind contributions that same month. 

Petition drives for voter ID, medical marijuana, minimum wage bringing in signatures — and money
Nebraskans for Medical Marijuana files language for two new petition drives

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