Impassioned supporters, civic leaders and people who simply wanted information and answers about the medical and societal impact of medical cannabis turned out for a community conversation Monday night at Northeast Community College in Norfolk.
The conversation featured three panelists: Sen. Anna Wishart of Lincoln, who has proposed a medical marijuana bill in the Nebraska Legislature; Luke Niforatos of the Virginia-based nonprofit Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), which opposes marijuana legalization and commercialization; and Ally Dering-Anderson of Omaha, an associate professor at the University of Nebraska College of Pharmacy and president of the Nebraska Pharmacists Association.
Other attendees included Norfolk Mayor Josh Moenning, former Nebraska Gov. Kay Orr and city councilman Rob Merrill, as well as law enforcement officers, doctors, pharmacists and attorneys.
About 125 people attended the event sponsored by the Daily News, CalmWater Financial Group of Norfolk and Northeast Community College and moderated by Kent Warneke, editor of the Daily News.
The message from Wishart was relatively straightforward: Medical marijuana should be available for sick people who need it, and those people should not be treated like criminals.
“There are people who are benefiting in states where medical marijuana is legal, who are treated like criminals here,” Wishart said. “I (have met) people who had medical conditions from which they benefited from having access to medical marijuana.”
Dering-Anderson said there is scientific and medical merit to using cannabinoids (”the drug part of the plant,” she said) as medical treatments, but those medicines should be controlled by doctors and pharmacists.
“There (is) clear scientific proof that there are diagnoses for which they (cannabinoids) may be the drug of choice, and if not the drug of choice, a viable option for people who are suffering from other things,” Dering-Anderson said. “If somebody could benefit from it, they need it. But they need it from me or the other pharmacists in this audience. They’re the drug experts.”
One of her concerns about Wishart’s bill is that it does not adequately control who from or where medical marijuana could be dispensed and available.
Niforatos said he and his organization do not support locking up people up who may need medicine, but the state should not let in a new multibillion dollar industry.
“To legalize this as a state and as a legislature is premature and opens the doors to an industry that simply wants to make a profit,” he said.
He said medical cannabinoids also should go through rigorous scientific trials via the Federal Drug Administration’s protocols before becoming available. That also has been the public stance on the issue from Gov. Pete Ricketts and Attorney General Doug Peterson.
“Every patient should have the medication they need, but we need to ensure that medication is safe,” Niforatos said.
Wishart spoke about some of the specifics of her Legislative Bill 110, saying that she is not working for the cannabis industry, but for Nebraska families in need of medical help.
“There are people whose lives are being torn apart because of their lack of access to cannabis,” Wishart said.
Nicolette Geiger of Norfolk said she knows families who have lobbied to have medical marijuana legislation, and that she herself suffers from a number of conditions that could potentially be treated by the drug.
“I don’t have access to cannabis to keep from having to have surgeries,” Geiger said. “I’m out of FDA (approved medication), there’s nothing left for me. I want something safe and from a pharmacy. And I believe Sen. Wishart is doing that.”
Dering-Anderson said she personally believes Wishart’s bill combines some of the best pieces of medical marijuana legislation already enacted in other states.
“We can steal the very best pieces from states that have the experience,” Dering-Anderson said. “And I believe Sen. Wishart has done a number of those things. I think we have the chance to write the policies where other states will want to look and see what Nebraska has done.”
Wishart’s bill remains in committee, but she is working on amendments and hopes to have it debated next month in Lincoln.
Niforatos said he believes Wishart and other supporters have good intentions but said that every state thinks it will be the first one to get it right.
“You have to at least face the facts, that there are negative impacts and it’s being pushed by this industry,” he said.
Niforatos made the point several times that one of his main concerns was the commercialization aspect of medical marijuana.
“Is this going to be about giving medicine to people or about driving a profit?” Niforatos said. “Look at the history of drug industries, (pharmaceutical companies) taking advantage of people in the opioid epidemic, big tobacco taking advantage of people. We’ve had so many bad experiences with drug industries in this country.”
During Monday’s event, there were several questions about the science of marijuana and its biological effects, such as whether it is addictive and potentially lethal.
Dering-Anderson emphatically answered the latter question.
“The number of people who have died from a cannabinoid overdose is exactly equal to the number of people who have been gored to death by a unicorn,” she said, drawing laughter and applause.
But Dering-Anderson said there also is still debate about the addictive capabilities of marijuana. She said that while the drug is habit-forming, there are only certain circumstances where it can induce withdrawal, a key symptom of addiction.
The debate took a heated turn at one point between Dering-Anderson and Niforatos, as the two disagreed about the merits of a number of studies about the effects of cannabis, one of which Dering-Anderson called an example of junk science.
Niforatos also disagreed with Dering-Anderson on the science of administering dosages for cannabinoids, calling Dering-Anderson’s claims “very baseless.”
“No doctor in this country can write up a prescription for marijuana and say, ‘Take a puff and a half a day,’ it’s just crazy,” Niforatos said.
Niforatos said Dering-Anderson was misleading the audience, a claim that drew jeers from some of those in attendance.
Overall, Dering-Anderson said she believes it’s necessary for patients to have medicine they need, and the potential dangers of marijuana are overstated.
“Frankly, I’m more worried about potholes,” she said.