Nebraska attorney general wants to inform public on marijuana risk as state senators push legalization

LINCOLN, NE – Medical marijuana continues to be a key issue facing the Nebraska Legislature this session.

In December, Nebraska senators Adam Morfeld and Anna Wishart created the Nebraskans for Sensible Marijuana laws committee. This group is aiming to put a proposed constitutional amendment before voters on the 2020 ballot.

Sen. Wishart has already introduced another medical marijuana bill, LB 110, this session, but Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson wants to inform the public on why he, and Gov. Pete Ricketts, believe legalizing marijuana is a harmful move for the state.

“I don’t accept the notion, or labeling, of medical marijuana,” Peterson told News Channel Nebraska in an interview Wednesday morning. “It’s an organized attempt by the marijuana industry. I call it the impairment industry, because their product has one purpose, and that’s to impair.

“We’re trying to get out as much information to the general public as we can about the science, or lack of science, behind what they’re trying to do and the real public harm that’s associated with it.”

Colorado was one of the first states to legalize marijuana. Medical cannabis became legal there in 2000, and recreational became legal on Jan. 1, 2014.

With medical marijuana legalization before the Nebraska Unicameral again this year, and a growing number of states legalizing the drug, Peterson fears the public is being misled.

“The medical label on marijuana is a farce, but the ‘impairment industry’ knows that’s what they need to do, because it’s an incremental process.” Peterson said. “The question I’m asking citizens to consider is, ‘who’s pushing for this?’ The next two questions are, ‘who benefits from passing a law like this, and who gets hurt?’ If they can lower expectation of harm, (the marijuana industry) will do well across the country.”

Medical marijuana is now legal in 33 states. Michigan was the most recent state to legalize weed for recreational use in 2018. Missouri and Utah were the latest to legalize it for medical purposes.

For those who oppose marijuana legalization in Nebraska, their focus has been on Colorado. It’s not only a border state, but it’s also one of the first two states in the nation to make the drug legal for recreational use in 2012. The other was Washington.

Peterson and others have studied data released by the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area in Sept. 2018.

According to the study, “marijuana-related traffic deaths increased 151 percent while all Colorado traffic deaths increased 35 percent” since the passing of Colorado Amendment 64 in Nov. 2012, which made recreational marijuana legal in the state for those over 21 starting on Jan. 1, 2014.

The study also found:

  • Traffic fatalities with drivers testing positive for marijuana in Colorado went up from 33 in 2006 to 138 in 2017.
  • Colorado marijuana use for those age 12 and older is ranked 3rd in the nation and is 85 percent higher that the national average.
  • Peterson also expressed concern in “black market” consequences of marijuana. In Colorado, there were 241 felony arrests related to the drug in 2016 and 239 in 2017. That’s up from 136 in 2015.

Nebraska is one of just three states in the country, along with South Dakota and Idaho, to not yet legalize marijuana in any form. That includes CBD oil. Kansas was the most recent state to legalize CBD, though their law states that any CBD sold must not contain THC.

Still, to Sen. Morfeld, this shows Nebraska is behind the times.

“Common sense dictates that marijuana is not the dangerous drug that everyone opposed to it makes it out to be,” Morfeld said. “When I had the Lancaster County Sheriff (Terry Wagner) come (in April 2017) and testify in opposition to marijuana, I asked him how many deaths has he seen that are absolutely attributable to marijuana. In his 30 years that he’s been a sheriff, he said zero.

“I think that says enough about how dangerous marijuana is or isn’t.”

There’s been an increased push for legalized medical marijuana in Nebraska over the last several years, with Senators Wishart and Tommy Garrett (2013-2017) introducing various bills to put this issue to a vote over the last few years.

These bills have essentially gone nowhere. Morfeld, this year, is optimistic for a different outcome.

The increase in optimism is, in part, due to a recent study completed by the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Sept. 2018, which found a majority of 23 patients who remained in a two-year clinical trial experienced fewer or less-severe seizures while taking purified cannabidiol, or CBD oil.

Unlike THC, CBD is a cannabinoid that doesn’t make people “high.”

“There had been several studies like this in the past that have shown the positive impacts on peoples’ lives who have chronic conditions when they have access to marijuana,” Morfeld said. “In the 2-3 polls we did on this amongst likely voters, 70-77 percent of Nebraskans support medical marijuana.”

Still, Peterson is concerned that the legalization of medical marijuana could be the start of a slippery slope, and could lead to issues like the ones found in the Colorado study.

Peterson also cites numerous studies conducted by the National Academy of Medicine, the Center for Disease Control and others that link marijuana to a number of short-term and long-term health conditions.

According to the CDC, when people begin using marijuana as teenagers, the drug may impair thinking, memory, and learning functions and affect how the brain builds connections between the areas necessary for these functions.

Further, they conclude marijuana use has also been linked to other mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts among teens. There’s also been worsening symptoms reported in patients with schizophrenia.

However, study findings on this have been mixed. Marijuana is still classified as a Schedule 1 drug by the DEA, so studies on a federally illegal drug have been limited in the past.

“As more science is coming out, particularly for adolescents, there’s some serious concerns about exposure health conditions like schizophrenia and there’s some real concerns on long-term impacts of developing minds,” Peterson said.

Meanwhile, Morfeld believes it’s counter-productive to ignore research that explores the health benefits of marijuana.

“I think it’s disingenuous for the attorney general and other folks to point to research that hasn’t been allowed, because of the opposition,” Morfeld said, “and to also point to crime statistics that quite frankly can’t be tied directly to marijuana use, and never have been. The opponents who oppose this, they also oppose research on the impact of marijuana on our health.”

Morfeld told Nebraska Radio Network in December that it’s “possible” he and Wishart look at legalizing recreational marijuana at some point down the road, but there doesn’t seem to be an immediate push for that at this time.

“Right now, our focus is on making sure medical marijuana is legalized,” Morfeld said last month. “Depending on what hear from Nebraskans…it could be brought up.”

You can follow Tommy on Twitter @Tommy_NCN.

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