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LINCOLN, Neb. — Nebraska voters may get the chance to decide a medical cannabis ballot measure in 2020 if lawmakers don't approve one in the session that starts in January 2019.

State Sens. Anna Wishart and Adam Morfeld, both of Lincoln, announced on Dec. 13, 2018, the formation of Nebraskans for Sensible Marijuana Laws, a committee primed to launch a signature-gathering campaign.

Wishart said the group plans to draft language for a constitutional amendment and will start fundraising and conducting public opinion research. Similar measures won approval this year in Missouri, Oklahoma, and Utah, bringing the total to 33 U.S. states that have legalized the drug for medicinal purposes.

“We arrived at this place because we haven't seen any action by the Legislature,” Wishart said after filing paperwork to form the committee.

Nebraska state Sen. Adam Morfield, shown March 28, 2018, has formed Nebraskans for Sensible Marijuana Laws with colleague state Sen. Anna Wishart, above, to gather signatures for a ballot measure to legalize medical cannabis in the state. (Associated Press File Photos/Nati Harnik)  

Nebraska's nonpartisan but Republican-dominated Legislature has repeatedly rejected attempts to legalize medical marijuana, with some lawmakers painting it as a gateway to allowing recreational use and noting that some of the claimed benefits aren't proven.

Gov. Pete Ricketts and Attorney General Doug Peterson, both Republicans, oppose it as well, but Wishart said she still plans to introduce a bill this year in hopes that policymakers will give it another chance before her group takes it to voters.

Advocates in Nebraska have increasingly turned to voters in recent years to bypass the Legislature. Voters adopted a minimum wage increase in 2014 and a Medicaid expansion Nov. 6, 2018, after lawmakers rejected both proposals. They also reinstated capital punishment in 2015 after lawmakers voted to abolish it.

Morfeld, who played a major role in the Medicaid expansion campaign, said patients with chronic illnesses shouldn't have to wait any longer for the relief they can get through medical cannabis. People with epilepsy, severe muscle spasms, multiple sclerosis, glaucoma, and other conditions have reported benefits from marijuana, although groups such as the Nebraska Medical Association have said more studies are needed.

“It's now time for Nebraska voters to decide this issue,” Morfeld said.

Nebraska state Sen. Anna Wishart, shown speaking during a March 28, 2018, budget debate in the Statehouse in Lincoln, plans to introduce a bill in the 2019 legislative session to allow medical marijuana in the state. If the Nebraska Legislature doesn't approve, Nebraskans for Sensible Marijuana Laws, a group she and a fellow senator co-founded, will petition for signatures to put medical marijuana legalization before the public in 2020. (Associated Press File Photo/Nati Harnik)

The group has received backing from the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), a national drug law reform group that has helped lead five successful marijuana-related ballot measures in Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, and Utah.

Matthew Schweich, the MPP's deputy director, said he's highly confident the measure would pass in Nebraska given his experience in other conservative states.

“There are people who suffer from serious conditions who have tried other things and not found relief,” he said. “For us to treat those people as criminals is heartless.”

Schweich said the MPP wouldn't be dedicating its time, expertise and money to the Nebraska campaign if it didn't believe the measure had a good chance, but he still hopes lawmakers address the issue in the upcoming session.

“It would mean relief and access sooner for patients,” he said. “We wouldn't have to wage a long and expensive campaign for something the people of Nebraska already support.”

-- Grant Schulte