Cannabis policy reform has a long and storied history in Nebraska.
Last year, Nebraskans for Medical Marijuana collected enough valid signatures to get a medical cannabis legalization measure on the state’s 2020 ballot, only to have the Nebraska Supreme Court overturn the initiative, which opponents claimed violated the state’s single subject rule.
From the ashes, a new strategy emerged, and Nebraskans for Medical Marijuana filed two separate medical cannabis initiatives with the Secretary of State Sept. 8.
The setback also inspired John Cartier, who was one of the ballot committee members working for the 2020 initiative and is still involved in the Nebraskans for Medical Marijuana campaign, and his colleague Michael Johnson to launch a cannabis trade group in the state to organize industry stakeholders around policy reform efforts.
“This is largely a bipartisan issue,” Cartier, now president of the Nebraska Cannabis Association, tells Cannabis Business Times and Cannabis Dispensary. “We have volunteers working on the medical marijuana campaign, for instance, who come from all different walks of life and all different political spectrums. There are a majority of Republicans that agree on this issue and a majority of Democrats [and] Independents that agree. … It’s largely an issue that everyone’s coming together on and can work together really nicely with, … so that’s very, very hopeful.”
“The people in the state of Nebraska really want this,” Cartier adds. “There’s just an overwhelming support from people, which makes the movement we’ve done so far possible, despite all the battles. … It’s more than time that this change happens, and the people are ready to go. … We just need to drag some other individuals kicking and screaming, unfortunately.”
Here, Cartier and Johnson, co-founder and board member of the Nebraska Cannabis Association, share insight into the organization’s goals and offer a glimpse at cannabis policy reform efforts in the state.
Melissa Schiller: What is the inspiration behind the Nebraska Cannabis Association? What is the organization trying to accomplish?
John Cartier: The formation of the Nebraska Cannabis Association has been a vision a long time in the making. In many ways, it started in early 2014 [or] early 2015, when there were advocates at the unicameral trying to get a bill passed and were just met with rejection year after year. We understood that we probably needed to take it to the ballot. In order to support a ballot initiative drive, we were going to need some formal organization, either a 501(c)(4) or another type of nonprofit that would be able to take donations and leverage power and do that type of work.
So, we went forward with the ballot initiative, and we didn’t form a trade association group at that time. We just had our nonprofit in the state that was handling the Nebraskans for Medical Marijuana work. We got so dangerously close to actually getting that on the ballot, and the Supreme Court, in a very strange ruling, blocked us from being able to appear on the ballot, which was disappointing and just heartbreaking to everybody in the state—all the hundreds of volunteers and all the 190,000 signatures that we collected from folks. There was a lot of anger—it was just terrible. After a couple weeks of just licking our wounds, we all came together again and understood that this was an opportunity to come back bigger and stronger in many respects.
With that, [we had] the idea to form a Nebraska trade association group that would loop in business leaders and other influential people in the state who are well-respected to try and get rid of the stigma around marijuana in many respects. That’s when me and Michael really started to put our heads together on what we needed to do to create a 501(c)(6) trade association. We just kept at it, at first with small meetings with people. Then, that’s evolved to us eventually filing the paperwork to get recognized as a nonprofit in the state. We just recently filed with the IRS.
But our goals are fairly simple. We want to build a robust and thriving market in Nebraska that’s going to benefit both businesses and consumers in the state. We want to construct a responsible regulatory structure that’s going to support all these things. As of right now [in the] the state, there’s nothing. The black market is what prevails, but we now have delta-8 and [delta-]10 products, and those don’t fall under any existing regulations either. There’s just so much that’s just not going as well as it could be in the state of Nebraska, and we’re just really a decade behind everybody else in some of these advances.
Michael Johnson: The infrastructure is there in Nebraska to work on the signature gathering for the ballot measure. We’re very confident that polling suggests that Nebraskans are overwhelmingly supportive of a regulated, responsible marijuana industry in Nebraska. We’re confident that we’re going to be able to get that done at the ballot box.
But the next step after that, which is very important in and of itself, is the rulemaking process. We know all too well that there are a lot of examples around the country of state regulatory structures that have created really healthy cannabis business environments and ones that have been very, very restrictive. We wanted to form an organization that brought together business leaders, medical doctors, scientists, attorneys [and] cannabis executives active in other state programs so that when the time comes, which we’re hoping is November of 2022, after a ballot measure passes, that we’re able to work hand-in-hand with the lawmakers and with the agency folks in Nebraska to create an industry that is healthy, that supports small businesses, that drives job creation [and] that’s a big economic driver in the state, while also supporting consumer safety and hopefully generating a fair amount of tax revenue. That’s really the vision and the overarching goal of the association.
MS: You mentioned that delta-8 products are not regulated in Nebraska. Can you elaborate on that? What does the production and sale of delta-8 look like in the state right now?
JC: Before it really caught on, there were a lot of dispensaries with just CBD products in the state of Nebraska. It was almost an overnight thing where suddenly these stores were selling the delta-8 and [delta-]10 products, which have more of that psychoactive effect on people. Where it falls right now, there’s no regulation over it except for the general business structures that exist for just a regular shop. Right now, I can go into a store that sells these products and just buy it and walk out, and that’s really it. There haven’t been any issues with it. I don’t want to paint this as this wild, rogue, really dangerous substance, but it’s really strange. In many ways, we have legal weed here—it just doesn’t fall under any regulations and there’s no way to collect any taxes that come from that whole sector. And of course, it’s just ludicrous that delta-9 is still prohibited when we’re basically selling the same thing in these stores.
MS: Is the Nebraska Cannabis Association involved in the hemp or the CBD side of the industry, or is it focusing strictly on medical cannabis?
JC: We’re focusing on anything business-related with the sale of cannabis. Right now, on our board of directors, we have people who are selling these products and are engaged in the industry, but we’re not just focused on medical marijuana. We want to move forward and promote a responsible adult-use petition and framework in the future.
MS: Who is eligible to join the Nebraska Cannabis Association currently and who will be eligible to join in the future, once legalization hopefully passes?
JC: Right now, [the] people [who] can join as members [are] those who are currently in the industry or are interested in joining in a big way. In the future, it’s going to be very much the same way—folks that are interested in being in business in the field, and those who are currently in it and want additional resources and want to contribute to the good fight here in Nebraska.
MJ: I think it’s primarily going to be made of two groups—there are folks who are interested in participating in the industry from a plant-touching perspective, and there are also a lot of professionals who just see this as a great economic opportunity, although they don’t plan on directly holding a cannabis license. That’s the great thing about developing a cannabis industry, is that there are a lot of ancillary benefits from marketing agencies, CPAs, attorneys, agricultural supply stores—really, there are a lot of opportunities to engage with the industry and to make money, and I think we’re going to see membership from both of those classes.
MS: As far as the ballot initiatives and overall policy reform efforts in the state, is Nebraskans for Medical Marijuana the main effort right now, or are there other ballot initiatives or legislative pushes to legalize cannabis?
JC: That’s the main effort right now. I’m involved with that campaign, and I was also one of the ballot committee members working for the 2020 initiative. It’s largely the same group of people doing it now.
We also have a second group right now that’s been meeting weekly, and our name is New Approach Nebraska. Our goal is to, by the end of this year, file three different ballot initiatives. One would be allowing the use of personal possession of cannabis products for every adult in the state of Nebraska 21 years of age and older. The second would be creating a regulatory agency structure that would help make the rules and govern the practices of the business. And then the third would be a clean slate-type bill, which would get rid of nonviolent cannabis convictions in the state.
“I think we do have a unique opportunity to sidestep some of the mistakes that maybe earlier states have made unknowingly that could help us really create a successful industry in this state.”
– Michael Johnson, Co-Founder & Board Member, Nebraska Cannabis Association
MS: How do you see the Nebraska Cannabis Association evolving and growing with the industry? What are your current efforts and where do you think you’re going to be a year from now?
MJ: In the near term, really what we’re doing is building a coalition. That’s really what the focus is right now, and trying to be a strong, unified community so that we can work together when the time comes. When the time comes is after the ballot measure. Next year, after November and then on into 2023, the focus is really going to be lobbying and working with our lawmakers cooperatively, just helping give an industry perspective, a small business perspective, on the rules and regulations that are being proposed. I would say that’s the second phase of what we’re trying to do.
The third and final phase—which would be after rulemaking is complete, licensing has happened and many of our members are now participants in a state-legal industry in Nebraska—at that time, we’re really going to focus on entrepreneurial support for our members, helping everyone be as successful as they can be. The ongoing lobbying effort is more making tweaks to rules and regulations with the advice of our membership to just help the overall industry be as successful as they can be.
MS: Along those lines, do you see any particular challenges that businesses in Nebraska may face that they may not face elsewhere in the cannabis industry? Or are there any unique opportunities that businesses in Nebraska might have that businesses in other states may not?
MJ: I think one of the advantages that we have is by going last, we have a lot of templates to look at in terms of other states and how they’ve implemented their industries. I think we do have a unique opportunity to sidestep some of the mistakes that maybe earlier states have made unknowingly that could help us really create a successful industry in this state.
Secondarily, I think that Nebraska is a very pro-business state, particularly pro-small business. We have an opportunity to support a lot of entrepreneurs, local Nebraskans, to thrive, to create this new industry.
Third, is to help with some of the tax revenue. Nebraska is a relatively high property tax state, and many citizens in Nebraska are looking for creative ways to lower the property taxes. Ultimately, that means we need to come up with new sources of funding for our government. We hope that cannabis could be a real tax engine for the state and potentially help to alleviate some of that burden.
JC: The one disadvantage is entities in this state that are very hell-bent on stopping any sort of progress in this area, namely coming from the current governor, Pete Ricketts. When we were collecting signatures for the medical marijuana campaign, they spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in dark money on radio ads across the state, just running the most ridiculous commercials, saying if you legalize marijuana, there are going to be marijuana gummies killing our kids. There’s really, really negative work in the state being done on that front, but they’re largely not successful because people are so inoculated to that nonsense these days.
MS: As far as the political climate, are both the Legislature and the governor hostile toward reform? Do you think you have the public support to legalize cannabis through a ballot initiative?
JC: How the Nebraska unicameral works is we only have 49 senators, and we have a filibuster rule, too, where if you don’t have 33 of those 49 votes, it’s almost impossible to move anything and pass it. Anything controversial like a medical marijuana bill is very tough to pass, although Anna Wishart, a state senator who has been carrying this issue for several years, did such a great job in the last legislative session, in 2020, to at least try to pass a compromise version that would satisfy all the concerns of various people, such as law enforcement and other politicians. That bill got closest to passing out of anything that’s been brought forward in recent memory. [The bill had the support of] the majority of senators—over 50%—but since we didn’t have enough for that filibuster, it’s not going anywhere.
There’s definitely opposition from some politicians, but not a majority of them anymore. There are some that see the writing on the wall and say, “We better pass something now before a ballot initiative goes through and we can’t control much of that process.” The most hostile, of course, is definitely the Nebraska governor, Pete Ricketts.
Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for style, length and clarity.