OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — A federal judge in Nebraska removed a major obstacle for activists who want to legalize medical marijuana via a ballot campaign, ruling that petition circulators no longer have to gather signatures from at least 5% of voters in 38 or more counties.
U.S. District Judge John Gerrard issued an order Monday to temporarily bar the state from enforcing the requirement, which is enshrined in the Nebraska Constitution to guarantee at least some buy-in from rural voters before an issue can appear on a statewide ballot.
The ruling comes at a critical time for medical marijuana supporters, who have until July 7 to submit at least 87,000 valid signatures on each of two petitions to Nebraska’s secretary of state. The campaign began with strong prospects but has struggled a bit since one of its biggest donors died, forcing organizers to rely primarily on volunteers.
In a lawsuit, Nebraskans for Medical Marijuana and the American Civil Liberties Union of Nebraska argued that the requirement violates free speech and equal protection rights by making some voters' signatures more valuable than others. They argued that, for signature gathering purposes, one voter in sparsely populated Arthur County is equal to 1,216 voters in Douglas County, which includes Omaha.
“The state of Nebraska is absolutely free to require a showing of statewide support for a ballot initiative — but it may not do so based on units of dramatically differing population, resulting in discrimination among voters,” Gerrard wrote in his ruling, which will remain in effect until a final decision is made.
Nebraska Secretary of State Bob Evnen said he'll appeal.
Nebraska’s population is heavily concentrated in its largest and medium-sized cities. The smallest of its 93 counties are among the least-populated nationally, with several having fewer than 500 residents.
Nebraska state Sen. Anna Wishart, a leader of the campaign, said she and others still intend to gather signatures in all 93 counties, but that striking the constitutional restriction is a “big win” for Nebraskans who want legal access to the drug for medicinal use.
“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,” she said.
ACLU attorney Jane Seu said the ruling will help protect direct democracy in Nebraska for all residents, regardless of where they live.
The 5% requirement has faced legal challenges before, including in 2014 when a federal judge declared it unconstitutional. An appeals court later overturned the decision on a technical, procedural matter but didn't rule on the merits of the case.
The ACLU said courts have struck down similar requirements in Idaho, Utah and Wyoming.
Nebraskans for Medical Marijuana is circulating two complementary petitions and said it has collected a combined total of more than 80,000 signatures. The group needs 87,000 valid signatures on each petition by the deadline to qualify.
The Associated Press