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Nebraska Gov. Ricketts warns: 'If you legalize marijuana, you're going to kill your kids'

William Cummings, USA TODAY
·5 min read
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Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts has launched an aggressive campaign against the legalization of medical marijuana in his state, going as far as to warn residents that legalizing the drug, which has never been linked to a fatal overdose, would kill their children.

"This is a dangerous drug that will impact our kids," Ricketts told reporters on Wednesday. "If you legalize marijuana, you’re gonna kill your kids. That’s what the data shows from around the country."

When asked what data Ricketts was referring to, a spokesman directed USA TODAY to two studies that found an increase in marijuana use among teens who died by suicide in states that had legalized the drug. In his remarks Wednesday, Ricketts' cited two cases where young men who died by suicide had eaten cannabis edibles.

The Republican governor made the statement as the state legislature is considering a bill to legalize the use of cannabis if recommended by a health care practitioner. The legislation restricts the form of consumption to oils, pills or tinctures, and prohibits marijuana smoking, even in the patient's home.

Ricketts decried the legislation as a "dangerous" effort to go around the normal process of federal approval for a drug's use.

"Big pot, big marijuana is a big industry," Ricketts said. "This a big industry that is trying not to be regulated, to go around the regulatory process. And that's going to put people at risk: when you go around regulations that are designed for the health and safety of our society."

Ricketts said experts agree that marijuana is dangerous, citing its Schedule I classification by the Drug Enforcement Administration as evidence. That classification signifies that the federal government believes it puts marijuana on the same level as drugs like heroin and LSD and that it has "no currently accepted medical use."

Yet, according to the DEA, "No deaths from overdose of marijuana have been reported." And legalization advocates point out that marijuana's classification was the result of an act of Congress, the 1970 Controlled Substances Act, and not based on conclusions from scientific experts.

A divided Nebraska Supreme Court stripped a legalization measure off the ballot last year after concluding that its wording violated the state constitution’s single-subject rule, which bars activists from bunching multiple issues into a single yes-or-no question for voters to address.

State Sen. Anna Wishart, a Democrat who introduced the legalization bill, said that if the legislation doesn't pass, advocates will propose a new one-sentence ballot measure through a citizen-led petition drive.

for clarification of the data the governor was referring to when he warned of the potentially fatal consequences of legalization. But in his remarks Wednesday, Ricketts' cited two cases where young men died by suicide after ingesting edible marijuana.

The governor also pointed to increased marijuana-related emergency room visits in California and Colorado after legalization, as well more drivers involved in fatal accidents who were testing positive for THC. And he cited studies that found an uptick in use among workers and minors in states where marijuana is legal.

Ricketts also pointed to risks to mental health and development posed by marijuana use. According to a 2017 study from the National Academy of Sciences, "cannabis is associated with the development of schizophrenia and other psychoses," and "heavy cannabis users are more likely to report thoughts of suicide than non-users." Long-term use can also aggravate social anxiety and bipolar disorders, the NAS study says.

The study warns "long-term cannabis use can have permanent effects on the developing brains of adolescents and young adults," as well as short-term memory in adults.

Pushback against Ricketts' claims

Legalization champions painted Ricketts' rhetoric as a modern example of "Reefer Madness," referring to a 1936 anti-marijuana propaganda film that greatly exaggerated the dangers posed by the drug.

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"Governor Ricketts' comments are so outlandish that they border on pure parody. Upon seeing them, I had to check my calendar to make sure it was still 2021, and not 1950," said Erik Altieri, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. "His claims are not backed up by science or the real-world experience of the over a dozen states which have already legalized marijuana for adult use, they seem to exist only in his troubled imagination."

State Sen. Adam Morfeld, a Democrat, tweeted, "It’s really hard to have a reasonable conversation with someone like this," in response to Ricketts' remarks.

Linking to a local news report quoting Ricketts, Wishart tweeted, "There are few things in this world that won’t kill you if you do or take too much. The cannabis plant is one of those. Facts matter."

Ricketts' claim about marijuana's lethality came the same day he endorsed a state bill to make permanent his emergency order allowing restaurants to serve alcohol with takeout orders.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "excessive alcohol use is responsible for more than 95,000 deaths in the United States each year," including 2,200 that are due to alcohol poisoning alone.

Contributing: The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts: Legal marijuana will 'kill your kids'