A campaign to legalize medical marijuana in Nebraska is back on track now that activists have won a legal challenge in federal court.
US District Judge John Gerrard just issued a preliminary injunction that blocks the state from interfering with a campaign to place medical cannabis legalization on this year's election ballot. State election officials were demanding that the campaign comply with a state regulation that forces activists to collect signatures from at least 5% of the voters living in at least 38 different counties.
Nebraskans for Medical Marijuana (NMM), the advocacy group behind the campaign, enlisted the help of the ACLU of Nebraska to challenge the constitutionality of the 38-county rule. The groups sued the state, arguing that this requirement violates the state's Equal Protection Clause because it effectively gives more power to voters living in rural counties than voters in more populous counties.
Judge Gerrard agreed that the geographical requirement was unconstitutional, and harshly criticized state officials for trying to enforce it. “For the State to argue that the baby must go with the bathwater is eyebrow-raising,” the ruling says. “The Court disagrees with the Secretary: The right of initiative is, the Court finds, a fundamental right that the citizens of Nebraska possess, so the State may not discriminate against them in their exercise of that right.”
The case is definitely a win for the state's medical marijuana movement, but it also protects Nebraskans' overall right to advance any kind of ballot measure in the state. “The right to petition our state government for change is sacred—it’s fundamental to good governance,” said state Sen. Adam Morfeld (D) in a press release. “Today’s court order will help protect Nebraskans’ political power in this critical stretch ahead of a final decision, and it suggests we’re doing what we need to do to win this lawsuit and permanently end Nebraska’s unconstitutional multicounty signature distribution requirement.”
The fight for medical cannabis access is far from over, though. The court's ruling is only preliminary, so it could be overturned in a further appeal. And even if the ruling does hold, NMM still needs to collect at least 87,000 valid signatures on two separate petitions before July 7. As of last month, activists had already collected around 25,000 signatures, but the group is running out of funding after two major donors dropped out due to illness.
The campaign's struggle is only the latest chapter in a longer battle for cannabis reform. Nebraska's Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts is a diehard prohibitionist who claims that legal medical marijuana will somehow kill children, and most elected officials share his opinion. Morfeld and fellow state Sen. Anna Wishart proposed a medical marijuana bill last year, but it was crushed by the GOP majority.
Two years ago, NMM collected over 200,000 signatures on a similar campaign to place a medical cannabis legalization measure on the 2020 election ballot. Conservative politicians challenged the campaign, arguing that it violated the state's single-subject rule, and the state Supreme Court agreed to kill the ballot initiative. This year, NMM has worked around this issue by drafting two different ballots, but the group must still collect tens of thousands of signatures in less than a month in order to place them on the ballot.
Fortunately, the court ruling gives activists another chance to succeed. “This is a big win for all the Nebraskans fighting for years to legalize medical cannabis,” said Sen. Wishart, who is also co-chair of the campaign, in a statement. “Nebraskans across the state support this issue because they know a loved one, friend or neighbor who is sick and would benefit from having access to medical cannabis. They deserve a vote in November.”