Legalization

Lincoln senator motivated by empathy in marijuana effort

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LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) – The spearhead in the battle to gain statutory approval in Nebraska for the use of medical marijuana to help tame or alleviate suffering is a Lincoln senator who is guided by medical science and prompted by personal empathy.

Anna Wishart, the senator who went looking in the rain for the missing Capitol cat named Cameron, that spunky little feline who attracted a community’s attention earlier this month, has a deep well of energy and enthusiasm coupled with determination.

Wishart, who represents a diverse Lincoln legislative district, has a horse named Bubba and dogs named Scout and Finn.

Finn, a 13-year-old border collie, was Wishart’s dependable door-to-door companion during her 2016 legislative campaign.

“He went with me to every single door and sat on the sidewalk or on the grass and waited,” she told the Lincoln Journal Star. They walked together to 20,000 doors.

Wishart, 36, regularly rides her horse and runs 10 miles. She ran cross country at Lincoln Southeast High School.

Outside the Legislature, she works at a nonprofit devoted to creating after-school and summer programming for Nebraska youths.

In the Legislature, Wishart helps craft the budget for state government as a member of the Appropriations Committee.

The senators she describes as her “closest mentors” are John Stinner, Mark Kolterman and Matt Williams, a veteran trio who sit close together in the back of the legislative chamber. She is a Democrat; they are all Republicans.

But, Wishart is quick to add, Steve Lathrop, a Democrat, is joining that category of mentors.

Sen. Adam Morfeld of Lincoln, a Democrat, has been her comrade-in-arms and ally in pushing the medical marijuana issue.

Republicans hold a 32-17 advantage in the nonpartisan Legislature, and Wishart is comfortable with that.

“I like being surrounded by people who think differently,” she said. “I like to be challenged.

“We’re actually 49 free agents,” she noted. “We rely on relationships.”

Wishart introduced a bill (LB474) this year that provides a regulatory framework to establish access to cannabis for medical purposes, and she has designated it as her priority bill.

While Wishart says she’s “a little shy of the spotlight,” it has spun her way with the light shining even brighter after Gov. Pete Ricketts unloaded on any efforts to legalize marijuana.

“If you legalize marijuana, you’re gonna kill your kids,” the governor stated in a flash-bang moment that attracted national attention.

The governor’s comments came during a news conference addressing the medical marijuana legislation, along with a looming petition drive to seek a vote of the people on the broader question of legalizing the sale of marijuana in the state next year.

“I don’t want this to be a personal issue against the governor,” Wishart said during an interview in her office at the Capitol. “There are many things where I agree with him.

“We are all allowed to have differing opinions, but we all work off the same set of facts,” she said.

“And even if you are against this issue, it’s coming.”

It seems clear that “the tide is moving in and we can’t stick our heads in the sand and not prepare ourselves,” she said.

Wishart, who is married to a former Lincoln Police officer, said she wants Nebraska to have “a safe, regulated system that incentivizes people to work with their health care provider to determine when cannabis may be the right decision” for medical purposes.

When she traveled the state seeking signatures for the 2020 petition drive to place that issue on the ballot, Wishart said, “I never heard a negative word.”

Rather, she said, “I was hard-pressed not to find some person who hadn’t benefited from it. So many stories.”

Wishart was reelected in 2020 to serve another four years representing western Lincoln’s District 27, winning every precinct, and she has resumed her work as an experienced member of the Appropriations Committee.

While marijuana has put her in the spotlight, there is much more that she would like to achieve during her second and final term in the Legislature, Wishart said, including addressing one of the state’s biggest challenges.

“I want to change the outmigration of young people, young families” from Nebraska, she said, recognizing that loss of talent threatens to limit the state’s future.

One of the clear lessons of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the realization that most people have “the ability to work remotely,” Wishart said, and she argues that doing so while living in Nebraska could have cost-of-living advantages, some infrastructure pluses and the accompanying benefit of “schools that are phenomenal.”

Opportunities are abundant and within easy reach, she said.

Nebraska needs to make efforts to “ensure that we have a state where young people want to stay and grow,” Wishart said.

Medical marijuana has emerged as a high-profile issue in Nebraska since former Sen. Tommy Garrett of Bellevue first carried the banner in the Legislature six years ago, arguing that “it’s a compassion issue.”

Last year, nearly 200,000 Nebraskans signed petitions to place the issue on the 2020 general election ballot for a decision by the people, but it was bumped off the ballot by a Nebraska Supreme Court decision on technical grounds.