As Efforts to Bring Medical Marijuana to Nebraska Begin Again, Advocates and Opponents Ready For More Debate

Sept. 16, 2021, 6:45 a.m. ·

Medical Marijuana Advcoates gather signatures. (Photo courtesy of Nebraskans for Medical Marijuana)

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The effort to bring Medical Marijuana to Nebraska is entering its 7th year, a fight that has had many twists and turns, but no resolution yet. Nebraska Public Media’s William Padmore talked with both supporters and critics about how the process is evolving and where it goes from here.

Crista Eggers waded into the medical marijuana debate about four years ago out of desperation, not for her well-being, but for her son, who suffers from epileptic seizures. She said her family tried everything to improve his condition.

“And so after we had exhausted all of those options here, I thought, oh, gosh, this is something we've got to try,” said Eggers, “And then I learned that that isn't an option here, that I would have to be a criminal to access that type of medication to try for my son.”

After that realization, Eggers, who lives in Omaha, became dedicated to bringing medical marijuana to Nebraska, starting as a volunteer and now as the statewide coordinator for Nebraskans for Medical Marijuana, which represents families in similar situations. As the effort enters its 7th year, Eggers is exhausted.

“You know, it's frustrating because literally our zip code comes between, again, possibly trying something that could save my child's life ultimately, and being in a place like we are right now in Nebraska, where it's not even something that we can consider.”

Crista Eggers son, Colton suffers from epeleptic siezures. (Photo courtesy of Crista Eggers)

Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts has repeatedly stated his opposition to allowing it here, saying it opens the door for bigger drug-related problems.

Eggers said she’s thought more than once about leaving Nebraska entirely over the issue, but for now, she says there’s too much at stake for her to leave, not just for her family, but all families seeking access to medical marijuana.

“You know, I'm reminded each and every day when I look at my child and when I hear the stories of other children and other people that we cannot give up,” said Eggers.

Much of her hopes lie with State Senators Anna Wishart and Adam Morefeld, who have made the medical marijuana issue a top priority. An effort to overcome a filibuster on medical marijuana legislation in the unicameral last year failed by a handful of votes.

A successful ballot initiative spearheaded by the senators was blocked after the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of a last-minute lawsuit that alleged the initiative’s ballot language was too broad and violated the state constitution.

“It was devastating,” said Wishart, recalling the moment the court’s decision came. “It was absolutely devastating. But the thing is, this issue is more important than then one hurdle.”

This year, Wishart said they’re trying a different approach. After poring over the court’s ruling, Wishart said they decided to split the medical marijuana issue into two separate ballot initiatives.

One would protect doctors who recommend medical cannabis and patients who possess it from legal consequences. The other would protect businesses that produce and supply medical cannabis. Despite adding a second initiative to the mix, Wishart believes the strategy could be a winner with Nebraska voters in 2022.

“Oh, I have absolute confidence,” said Wishart. “I've been out to rural counties, qualifying those counties and collecting signatures. I've never had one single person come up to me upset about this issue.”

Despite her confidence, the medical marijuana movement faces plenty of opposition. State Senator John Lowe is perhaps the most vocal opponent of the effort in the legislature and said Senator Wishart is being dishonest about her true intentions.

Sens. Anna Wishart and Adam Morfeld listen to a reporter's question (Photo by Fred Knapp, Nebraska Public Media News)

“Well, there is no such thing as medical marijuana,” said Lowe, “They're just trying to get marijuana passed. And once the medical marijuana has passed, they will start working on recreational drugs almost immediately.”

Other than being a front for attempts to pass marijuana legalization in Nebraska, a charge Senator Wishart denies, Lowe also said the drug lacks FDA approval and worries about medical marijuana getting into the hands of minors who don’t need it.

Medical Marijuana advocates also face resistance at the grassroots level. John Kuehn is co-chair of Smart Approaches to Marijuana Nebraska, an organization that has spoken out against local medical marijuana efforts in the past.

“The idea of using and experimenting, untested, self-medicating, highly psychoactive products on children in particular, is a really difficult area in terms of medical ethics and in terms of how we approach the most vulnerable among us,” said Kuehn.

John Kuehn Photo.jpg
Co-Chair of Smart Approaches to Marijuana Nebraska John Kuehn (Courtesy photo)

Like Lowe, Kuehn cites lack of scientific evidence on the benefits of THC as well as the medical approval that would lay the groundwork for recreational marijuana as main points of opposition. No FDA approval, no go, said Kuehn.

FDA approval is also of concern to some within the medical community. Dr. Kenneth Zoucha is division director for the Department of Psychiatry, in the Addiction Medicine division at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and said he would never recommend a drug to a patient that wasn’t approved by the FDA, even if a ballot measure legalizing it were to pass.

“I just feel that that process is invaluable,” said Zoucha, “And, you know, the last thing I want to do is harm my patients with the medications that I'm prescribing.”

He said cannabidiol, a byproduct of cannabis, has already been proven to help children with seizures. For medical marijuana wholesale, however, he said the science is not there yet.

For Crista Eggers, whose son is entering first grade this year, she doesn’t care about FDA approval or efforts to legalize recreational marijuana. For her, this is about giving her son and others in similar situations a chance for a better quality of life.

“For those who, you know, have said, ‘Well, I would never try that for my child,’ or ‘I can't believe that you would think of doing that,’ I don't have a lot to say to them, except that I can almost guarantee you that if it were your child seizing uncontrollably on the ground, lifeless, turning blue, that that's all it would take for you to realize that you have to fight until the very end, for the option to have something to try to alleviate and lessen that suffering,” said Eggers.

The 2022 Ballot initiatives are currently being reviewed by the Nebraska Secretary of State.

Nebraska Medical Marijuana Advocates at State Capitol
Sen. Anna Wishart speaks to medical marijuana rally at the state capitol. (Photo courtesy of Nebraskans for Medical Marijuana)