LINCOLN, Nebraska — Worried that lawmakers may not act, advocates for medical marijuana could take their campaign to Nebraska voters next year, and a new state law could make their job easier.
Supporters said they've started gathering signatures to place the issue on the November 2016 ballot. Despite significant hurdles, activists from the Omaha chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws said the new petitioning law will make a difference.
"It's still a mighty task, but this helps us tremendously," said Bryan Boganowski, the founder of Omaha NORML.
The law signed last week by Gov. Pete Ricketts allows petition organizers to pay circulators by the signature, instead of by the hour. Critics of the 2008 ban on signature-based pay argued that many grassroots groups don't have the resources to pay circulators hourly, and paying by the signature gives circulators an incentive to gather more.
Boganowski said his group has 50 to 60 volunteers throughout the state who are circulating petitions, and is planning to raise money and hire a professional petition company to gather enough signatures.
Organizers hope to replicate the efforts of last year's successful ballot campaign to increase the minimum wage, which relied heavily on financial support from unions and wealthy Democratic donors.
Lawmakers could still debate medical marijuana legalization this year, but its prospects are unclear. The Judiciary Committee is tentatively scheduled to vote Monday on a bill to allow limited access to medical cannabis.
Sen. Tommy Garrett, who sponsored the measure, said he's confident the bill will advance out of committee. Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson and some lawmakers have criticized it as a slippery slope toward recreational use.
Garrett, of Bellevue, said he'd rather see lawmakers act this year than wait until the 2016 election.
"I'm all about doing something right now," he said. "I see the faces of these children who are having seizures, and I just don't want to keep delaying this."
The latest version of the proposal would allow for two state-registered manufacturers, each with four distribution facilities scattered throughout the state. The cannabis could be ingested as a liquid, pill, or liquid vapor, but could not be smoked.
The drug could be used to treat seizures and a number of illnesses, including cancer, HIV, glaucoma, Lou Gehrig's disease, Tourette's syndrome and Crohn's disease.
Other medical conditions would require approval of the Department of Health and Human Services. Garrett said he was concerned the new legislation, proposed by the committee, was too restrictive.
The new petitioning law will go into effect in August or September.
Nebraska's constitution requires petition circulators to gather signatures from 7 percent of all registered voters if they want to change a state law and 10 percent if they want to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot. They're required to visit at least 38 of Nebraska's 93 counties and collect signatures from at least 5 percent of the registered voters in each.
Paying by the signature helps petition organizers accurately predict their costs, said Kent Bernbeck, an Omaha businessman who has attempted several local and statewide petition drives.
When paying by the hour, organizers can't predict how much time they'll need to gather the required number of signatures. Knowing the cost of each signature allows them to set a goal with an estimated total budget, which in turn makes it easier to raise money, Bernbeck said.
"When you can't tell donors how much it will cost, people shy away in a hurry," Bernbeck said.
Sen. Paul Schumacher of Columbus warned his colleagues last week that the new law could lead to more ballot measures if senators ignore the will of most Nebraskans.
Schumacher pointed to a minimum wage bill that the Legislature rejected last year. Unlike the ballot measure, which imposed an across-the-board increase, the legislation likely would have included exemptions for small businesses.
The lead sponsor, Sen. Jeremy Nordquist, said at the time that he was willing to accept an amendment that would have excluded businesses with gross incomes of less than $10 million a year. The amendment by Schumacher also would have limited the higher minimum wage to workers who have spent two full years on the job.
"Now the voters have a functional way to talk back at us on tax issues, on gaming issues, on Medicaid," Schumacher said. "We are moderated now."