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Source: Omaha World Herald LINCOLN – The seeds of a discussion about legalizing marijuana for medical purposes have been planted in Nebraska.
Three members of the State Board of Pharmacy plan to quiz their colleagues about the controversial topic at the May 22-25 annual meeting of the National Boards of Pharmacy in Anaheim, Calif.
State Board Chairman Rick Zarek, a Gothenburg, Neb., pharmacist, said the Nebraskans hope to learn more about the pros and cons of legalization and any problems that have arisen in the 14 states that now allow pot to be used for pain relief, appetite enhancement and other medical purposes. A 15th state, Maryland, allows people arrested for marijuana possession to use medical necessity as a defense, reducing the maximum fine to $100.
“It’s probably an issue we’re going to have to address in the future,” said Zarek, who said he had no personal opinion on the subject.
Nebraska officials declared the issue of legalizing marijuana for medical purposes dead in the water in March, even after the state pharmacy board in neighboring Iowa voted unanimously to recommend that it be permitted in the Hawkeye State.
But in April, members of a group called Nebraska H.E.M.P. (Helping End Marijuana Prohibition) attended a meeting of the Nebraska Board of Pharmacy. They plan to return for the board’s July meeting.
A Nebraska H.E.M.P. spokeswoman said the group plans an education program in hopes of launching an initiative petition drive in 2012 to get the medical marijuana issue on the state ballot.
“It is one of the safest plants on Earth to use,” said Diana Wulf of Staplehurst, Neb., the spokeswoman.
Wulf said the group considered starting a petition drive this year but decided that Nebraskans were “uneducated” about the medicinal and industrial uses of hemp.
Pharmacy officials in Montana and Chicago urged caution, however.
“Don’t do it, is my simplest advice,” said Ronald Klein, executive director of the Montana Board of Pharmacy.
Montana has seen an explosion in the number of applications to use medicinal marijuana and in the number of commercial growers since the Obama administration announced last year that federal officials would no longer prosecute medical pot cases.
The number of patients in Montana has more than doubled this year, to more than 15,000, according to the state’s Department of Public Health and Human Services.
“Caregivers,” who can grow up to six marijuana plants at a patient’s request, now number more than 5,000, spawning a commercial growing industry.
The firebombings of two businesses in Billings, Mont., made national news this week. Both times, the term “Not in Our Town” was spray-painted on the buildings. The Billings City Council was scheduled to vote Monday night on an ordinance to place a moratorium on new commercial growers.
Several Montana communities are looking at new controls, as is the Montana Legislature, which is weighing a proposal to have the Board of Pharmacy regulate the industry. It was legalized in 2004 with the approval of 62 percent of Montana voters.
“They are not going to repeal the law,” said Klein, a native of David City, Neb., and a licensed pharmacist. He worked 19 years as an inspector for the Nebraska Board of Pharmacy.
“In this case, Nebraska would be better off to simply wait and let other states figure out the problems,” he said.
Some doctors, Klein said, now fly into Montana and rent meeting rooms in motels. After a quick examination of a crowd of attendees, they issue permission to obtain marijuana.
The Montana board plans to sue a grow operation, Cannabis Farmacy, over misuse of the term “pharmacy.”
“If, indeed, it helped people with chronic cancer in their last days, I wouldn’t worry about that,” Klein said. “But it’s morphed into something else.”
Still, Carmen Catizone, executive director of the Chicago-based National Association of Boards of Pharmacy, said medical marijuana is among the top issues facing his members, not only because proposals have been made in most states to legalize it, but also because there is so much disagreement about marijuana’s medical usefulness.
The national pharmacy group held a two-day symposium in December on medical marijuana. No Nebraska board members attended.
But Catizone said the issue will surely be raised again at the annual meeting next week, particularly in light of what has happened in places like Colorado which has more marijuana outlets than Starbucks outlets and in Iowa.
“You kind of expect the Californias and Oregons … but when it hits the heartland like Iowa, that’s when it caught people’s attention,” he said. “To get legs in Iowa was a big deal.”
The Iowa Legislature would still have to vote to legalize medicinal marijuana. State Sen. Mike Gronstal of Council Bluffs, the Senate majority leader, has said only a narrowly crafted bill would be likely to be considered.
In Nebraska, Gov. Dave Heineman has said repeatedly that he opposes such legalization.
The Legislature has never seen the introduction of a Nebraska medical marijuana bill, although several years ago legislators considered permitting the growing of hemp for industrial purposes.
But advocates like Wulf are undaunted. She said that groups of 125 and 75, respectively, attended pro-pot recent rallies in Omaha and Lincoln and that an industrial hemp rally is scheduled next week on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, across the state line in South Dakota.
“Our intention is by the first of next year to educate Nebraska,” she said. “Marijuana is more than just getting high.”
The three pharmacy board members in Nebraska are attending the Anaheim annual meeting at a cost of $5,269, which is financed by licensing fees paid by pharmacists.
Zarek, the board chairman, said that because of state budget problems, the board has tried to limit itself to one such meeting a year.