A Nebraska lawmaker is pushing for a change in the state’s drug laws that he says are outdated, according to a report in the Lincoln Journal Star. Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha has introduced two bills that would adjust penalties for some drug possession and distribution offenses. At a meeting of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, Wayne said current laws were putting people who were not involved in the distribution of drugs in prison for trafficking and creating overcrowding in state prisons and county jails.
The first measure, LB89, was introduced by Wayne in January and would reduce penalties for possession of marijuana and possession with intent to deliver. Wayne told his colleagues on the committee that the state’s current laws are resulting in defendants being sentenced unfairly.
“We have arbitrary numbers in the marijuana statutes that presume a person is a distributor,” Wayne said. “Our law needs to be nuanced because if not … we are prosecuting people who simply may have a habit, although illegal, but are not considered drug manufacturers or distributors.”
Under LB89, possession with intent to deliver five pounds or less of marijuana would be reduced to a Class lV felony. Quantities greater than five pounds would continue to be a Class llA felony, with penalties of up to 20 years in prison.
For simple possession charges, more than one pound up to five pounds of marijuana would be a Class l misdemeanor. More than three ounces to one pound would be a Class lll misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of three months in jail.
In testimony at the hearing, Lancaster County Public Defender Joe Nigro said that the War on Drugs was a failure, just like Prohibition before it.
“Legalization of marijuana across the country is inevitable,” Nigro said. “Use of marijuana runs across racial and socioeconomic lines, yet African-Americans are four times as likely to be arrested and charged for marijuana offenses.”
ACLU of Nebraska Attorney Spike Eickholt told the lawmakers that he’s seen people with less than an ounce of marijuana facing the same penalties as if they’d been caught smuggling 500 pounds of pot down the highway.
“Prosecutors do charge, and in my opinion overcharge, those kinds of cases,” said Eickholt.
The second bill by Wayne, LB652, would make it a Class l misdemeanor to possess a residual or very small amount of a controlled substance, with a punishment of not more than one year in prison, a $1,000 fine, or both.
Wayne said that residue can’t get anyone high, but is still treated as a Class lV felony with a penalty of up to two years in prison and a fine of $10,000.
“Right now there’s no basic distinction and no protection from prosecutors for someone simply caught with a pipe that has residue, versus someone caught with actual measurable amounts (of a drug),” Wayne told the committee.
Nigro said that half of the cases handled by his office were drug cases, 70 percent of which were for possession. Of those, 39 percent were for charges of possessing residue. Changing the law would save the county resources, he said.
“It would be one thing if all of this was reducing drug use and making our communities safer. It isn’t,” said Nigro.