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Nebraska Lawmakers Sustain Veto of Needle Exchange Bill

Nebraska seemed poised last month to become an unlikely counterpoint to the national trend of tightening drug laws. A coalition of liberal and conservative legislators in the state passed, by a wide margin, a bill to allow local governments to establish needle exchanges.

But Gov. Jim Pillen vetoed the bill, warning against bringing “the failed policies of drug-infested cities like San Francisco here,” and on Tuesday, Nebraska lawmakers changed course and narrowly sustained his veto.

The demise of the needle exchange bill reflected rising skepticism among Republicans and some Democrats about the harm reduction approach to illicit drug use. Oregon has moved this year toward re-criminalizing hard drugs, Idaho lawmakers advanced a bill that would ban needle exchanges and San Francisco voters approved a ballot measure that will require drug screening for many welfare recipients.

The debate in Nebraska, a reliably conservative state, mirrored the national conversation about how to approach drug use. Supporters of the bill spoke of the chance the bill offers to limit disease transmission and help drug users secure treatment, while Mr. Pillen, a Republican, asked lawmakers to “sustain my veto to prevent our government from aiding and abetting the use of dangerous, illicit and dehumanizing drugs.”

The governor’s pitch persuaded enough lawmakers to change their minds. Twenty-seven of Nebraska’s 49 lawmakers voted to override the veto on Tuesday, three short of the required 30 votes needed to enact a bill over Mr. Pillen’s objection. When the Legislature sent the bill to the governor last month, 30 senators voted in favor.

“For people who are still using, who are still facing addiction, whatever reason, this is a door,” said the bill’s sponsor, State Senator Megan Hunt, a political independent who used to be a Democrat. “This is an opportunity for them to get treatment for the first time.”

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