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The Nebraska Legislature has decided that it wants no part in creating a medical cannabis law.

Lawmakers' inaction means Nebraska voters will instead take the reins, with a petition initiative expected to land on the 2020 ballot. And the final product could be far less stringent than the carefully crafted legislation that once again appears dead following hours of debate last week.

If senators want to keep their hands clean, that’s their prerogative – but they must understand the consequences of doing so could be a far more permissive medical cannabis program in Nebraska.

Nebraska’s bills establishing a medical cannabis program became increasingly more restrictive as time passed. The Legislature’s present champion on this topic, Lincoln Sen. Anna Wishart, spelled out what the Journal Star editorial board considers the best approach: limited and tightly regulated.

Limiting the amount that can be possessed. Capping the concentration of marijuana’s active ingredient. Banning smoking the drug, instead requiring use of creams and oils. Barring edible cannabis products, through an amendment offered by Bellevue Sen. Sue Crawford.

But such logical guardrails could be absent from the question that goes before voters – one widely expected to pass, given other states’ experience and Nebraskans’ propensity to approve such measures. Lawmakers’ refusal to act on a restricted program, therefore, opens the door for less control going forward.

One of the common criticisms of medical cannabis in Nebraska – one of just four states with no such program – is that it provides a gateway to the legalization of recreational marijuana. But only 10 of the remaining 46 states have gone that route, meaning the slope ahead isn’t as slippery as opponents fear.

And while medical research is limited by the federal government’s continuing to classify marijuana as a Schedule I drug – which deems it of no medicinal value – the limited studies done have portended some optimism in addressing difficult conditions.

A study just published Tuesday in the American Journal of Psychiatry found cannabidiol, an inactive ingredient in marijuana and hemp, could help combat opioid addiction. Another authorized by the Legislature in 2015 and conducted at the University of Nebraska Medical Center found promise for treating intractable seizures.

Nebraskans with these and other chronic conditions deserve the freedom to, with their doctors, pursue the best course of action. If they deem medical cannabis the right option, so be it. These people’s liberty to choose this treatment under difficult circumstances has no effect on others.

Yet ensuring medical cannabis stays in its intended lane would have required the Legislature to pass legislation narrowly defining its possession and use. Its failure to do all but guarantees the buck will be passed to voters – which will likely result in a far more permissive program.

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