For three decades, marijuana possession has been decriminalized in Nebraska, but now a state legislator has filed a bill, LB844, that would make it a misdemeanor punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a $500 fine. Currently, the maximum penalty for possession of less than one ounce is a $100 fine.
Nebraska is one of 12 states where marijuana possession has been decriminalized. Most of of them decriminalized in the 1970s, but Nevada joined the select group in 2001. A decriminalization initiative will go before Massachusetts voters this fall, and it appears the Vermont legislature may consider a move this year as well (See story here this issue).
But if state Sen. Russ Karpisek has his way, Nebraska will be heading in the other direction. He told the Omaha World-Herald he wants pot smokers to suffer at least the same penalty as underage drinkers.
"Alcohol is legal for adults, while marijuana is an illegal substance," the Wilber lawmaker said. "It's one of those things us rednecks really get mad about."
The proposed bill is winning the support of anti-drug activists and some prosecutors. The "parent resource group" PRIDE-Omaha Inc. thinks it's a good idea.
"Current law is too lenient. It's kind of viewed as a slap on the wrist. Society in general ties the seriousness to the punishment. Our kids are growing up in a culture that really normalizes the use of marijuana," said the group's co-executive director Margaret Grove, adding that passing the measure would challenge social acceptance of marijuana use.
"I think certainly we would be inclined to make the argument that we've de-emphasized it too much," Sarpy County Attorney Lee Polikov said. "We're not sending a very good message." People don't want to go to the county's marijuana diversion program because they see the $100 fine as a "cost of doing business," Polikov complained.
But former state Sen. John DeCamp, then of Neligh, who led the decriminalization effort in the 1970s, said there was a sound basis for it. "I had very solid reasons for it," DeCamp said, adding that he convinced conservative legislators it would save tax dollars by incarcerating fewer people. Also, DeCamp said, soldiers were returning home from Vietnam "accustomed to a toke of marijuana" and didn't deserve to have their lives ruined.
Similarly, Omaha defense attorney Don Fiedler, who lobbied to support the 1978 decrim effort, said the move kept many Nebraskans from getting drug-related criminal records that would hinder their future prospects.
Last year, there were 7,416 citations and arrests for possession, sale, and manufacture of marijuana in the state, according to the Nebraska Crime Commission.