Medical Marijuana Activists Prepare for Ballot Initiative Battle

June 18, 2019, 6:45 a.m. ·

Sen. Anna Wishart testifies on her medical marijuana bill (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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The legislature did not vote on medical marijuana this session, as supporters did not have the votes to overcome a filibuster. However, activists still have hope in the form of a ballot initiative for 2020. If it makes it to the ballot, there are organizations ready to fight on both sides.

“There needs to be an education process. Because right now, I think if you put it on the ballot today and people would vote, it would pass,” said Sen. Curt Friesen. He represents District 34 southwest of Columbus. He opposes legalizing medical marijuana. However, the issue may soon be up to voters instead of the legislature. Activists, led by Nebraskans for Sensible Marijuana Laws, are gathering signatures in hopes of putting a constitutional amendment on the ballot that would legalize marijuana for medical purposes.

Freisen used the word education, and that’s a common refrain on both sides of the issue. The results of the ballot measure could come down to which side the public believes more strongly.

For Crista Eggers, education starts with personal stories. Earlier this year she testified to the Judiciary Committee.

“I went and spoke on behalf of my son, who is four, and suffers from severe seizures that are not controlled at this point with any medications or treatments or anything, and so I went to plead with them to educate them on, you know, what it's like to truly be one of these families, to be one of these individuals who does not have access to this plant,” Eggers said.

Eggers is a member of Nebraska Families 4 Medical Cannabis. She’s been told cannabis could help her son.

“We doctor in a state where medical cannabis is legal, and definitely his doctor has been on board with saying absolutely he would be prescribing that, he feels Colton would be a ideal candidate,” Eggers said.

This is part of the local strategy to legalize medical marijuana: using the stories of Nebraskans like Eggers. But there are larger systems in place too.

Matthew Schweich is Deputy Director at the Marijuana Policy Project. They’re a national group that works on legislation and ballot initiatives around medical and recreational marijuana.

“First, you need to qualify for the ballot, and second phase is actually winning the campaign," Schweich said. "The main cost for the first phase is gathering signatures. And the main cost of the second phase is advertising to reach voters and to make your case about why this is a good policy."

In the second phase, Schweich says the biggest challenge will be efforts from those who don’t want to see medical marijuana legalized.

“We need to push back on misinformation, and right now we’re already seeing spending on the other side. They’re buying radio ads, claiming it has nothing to do with the initiative but we all know it does, and they’re doing focus groups apparently," Schweich said. "So I’m anticipating the possibility of a fairly robust opposition campaign and that will be our challenge."

One group on the other side of the issue is Smart Approaches to Marijuana, or SAM. John Kuehn is the state co-chair for SAM Nebraska.

“We’re going to continue our educational mission regardless of what political efforts may happen, whether that is in the next six months, the next year, the next two years, or the next four," Kuehn said. "We’re focused on helping Nebraskans understand the facts about marijuana and be able to make the best informed decision both for themselves and for their families."

How Nebraskans will ultimately vote on the issue is hard to predict. On the one hand, Nebraska has recently elected many Republicans who oppose medical marijuana. On the other hand, neighboring Missouri voted last year to legalize medical cannabis, despite its own Republican lean.

Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts, wants marijuana education too, but he wants that information to come from the federal government.

“It should go through the FDA process like any other drug, so it can be determined how to use it, safe, what dosages are safe and effective, what the unintended consequences are, so that we can make sure that the beneficial effects of it are being used in a truly medicinal way and not in a way that endangers the public safety,” Ricketts said.

Ricketts doesn’t only focus on data, though. He tells stories too.

“There have been specific cases in Colorado where people who didn’t have any background with marijuana or any sort of history of depression like Levy Pongi ate a marijuana cookie and then jumped off a balcony,” Ricketts said.

Ricketts is referring to Levy Thamba Pongi, a Wyoming college student who ate six times the recommended amount of a marijuana edible in 2016. Some reports say Pongi jumped, while others say he fell.

Which stories are more compelling to Nebraska voters will be determined over the coming months. At least 10% of registered voters need to sign a petition to get the question on the ballot in November of 2020.

Nebraskans can expect a lot more efforts at education on both sides of the issue before then.