Medical marijuana debated in Nebraska's Capitol

(Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)
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March 6, 2015 - 5:52pm

Supporters and opponents of legalizing medical marijuana flocked to the Nebraska Capitol Friday to testify on legislation on the subject.

A bill by Bellevue Sen. Tommy Garrett called the Cannabis Compassion and Care Act, would legalize medical marijuana. Among those who came to the Capitol to testify in favor of it was David Swarts of Palmyra. In an interview before the hearing, Swarts said he used to view the issue differently. "I used to think everything I’d been told for the last 60 years: that marijuana was the devil weed and that it led to other drugs," he said.

Swarts said he changed his mind after his son-in-law was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and he and his family discovered research that he said indicated cannabis could slow the growth of tumors and even allow cancer cells to destroy themselves.

Meanwhile, members of the Nebraska Sheriffs’ Association came prepared to testify against it. Among them was Grant County Sheriff Shawn Hebbert. "The Sheriffs’ Association is opposed to the legalization of marijuana in any way, shape or form, let alone through medical use. Medical use is not acceptable practice. If it was, the FDA would have approved it," he said. "We wouldn’t need Cannabis Compassion Care Centers as this bill calls for. We already have pharmacies."

Supporters of medical marijuana argue that it has proven more effective that FDA-approved drugs in treating epileptic seizures and in easing the pain of people undergoing chemotherapy for cancer.

Scotts Bluff County Sheriff Mark Overman said in a pre-hearing interview that in every state where marijuana has been legalized, there have been similar stories. "You see some very, very ill individuals that all of us have compassion for. The bottom line is that the FDA has never approved marijuana as a drug. There is not a country in the world that has approved smoking something as a drug delivery system," Overman said. "You use marijuana to get high."

Overman said Colorado started with a limited legalization of medical marijuana in 2002, but that it was vastly expanded in 2009 with the advent of storefront clinics that he said Garrett’s bill would permit in Nebraska. "They had somewhere between four and five thousand people who were authorized users of that. And then they set up the storefronts. Today they have 116,000 medical marijuana cardholders, and 97 percent of those are males between the ages of 18 and 35 whose complaint is ‘pain,’ Overman said.

Coloradans voted in 2012 to legalize recreational use of marijuana, and the law took full effect last year.

Swarts was asked to respond to opponents’ arguments that in states that have legalized medical marijuana, it’s too easy to get, and somebody could get it just for a backache. "So if you have to have cannabis in your medicine cabinet or hydrocodone, and your kids are going to get into it, would you sooner they got into hydrocodone, which will kill ‘em, or cannabis, which’ll make ‘em sleep?" he asked.

Another person ready to testify in support of Garrett’s bill was Shelley Gillen of Bellevue. Gillen was also instrumental in getting Sen. Sue Crawford of Bellevue to introduce a more limited legalization of cannabis oil, which she said could help her 12-year-old son who suffers from seizures related to a rare form epilepsy. Gillen acknowledged that some people might abuse medical marijuana, but suggested the risk is worth it. "There are so many people who could benefit from this. How would it be fair to deny them an option to this treatment, just because of those few who decide to consciously abuse it?" she asked.

The committee is not expected to take any immediate action on the bills.

In other legislative news Friday, Gov. Pete Ricketts signed legislation sponsored by Sen. Crawford eliminating a requirement for nurse practitioners to be supervised by doctors. Former Gov. Dave Heineman vetoed similar legislation last year. Ricketts said he signed it to help address healthcare shortages in rural and urban Nebraska.

And the Nebraska Accountability and Disclosure Commission voted 7-0 Friday that former Gov. Heineman violated the law by using state resources last year to announce his candidacy for president of the University of Nebraska. Nebraska Democratic Party Chairman Vince Powers complained after Heineman, a Republican, called a press conference at the Capitol and notified people on official stationary of his candidacy, which was unsuccessful. Heineman said his purpose was to inform people of his candidacy, and he did not intend to violate the law. He agreed to repay $250 for the use of state resources.




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