Medical Marijuana Promoted; Student Sexual Abuse Prevention Heard

Feb. 23, 2021, 5:03 p.m. ·

Shelley, Will and Dominic Gillen, foreground, at news conference about medical marijuana Tuesday (Photo by Fred Knapp, NET News)

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Supporters of legalizing marijuana for medical use renewed their push in a Capitol news conference Tuesday. And the Education Committee heard a proposal to require schools teach students about preventing sexual abuse.

Last year, supporters of legalizing medical marijuana, or cannabis, collected more than 196,000 signatures to put the question before voters. But the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled against allowing the initiative to appear, declaring that the proposal contained more than one subject, and could be confusing to voters.

Tuesday, supporters of legalization held a news conference in the Capitol Rotunda to renew their push for legislation. Among them was Crista Eggers, who said her six-year-old son Colton suffers from epileptic seizures and could be helped by the drug. Eggers said most Nebraskans support legalization.

“The people have spoken – not just the 196,000 who signed our petition, but those represented in the polls, which shows that the citizens of the state overwhelmingly support medical cannabis,” Eggers said.

Sen. Anna Wishart, sponsor of this year’s legislation, said polls show more than 75 percent of Nebraskans support the idea. In addition to her bill, supporters also advocated for a bill requiring the attorney general to issue an opinion before petitions are circulated on whether proposed initiatives contain more than one subject, as well as a constitutional amendment relaxing that requirement.

Several supporters said Nebraska’s current prohibition of medical marijuana forces them to choose between heath and following the law. Among them was Leah Post, who said she suffers from complex regional pain syndrome. Post said she’s been prescribed a synthetic form of marijuana called Syndros, but the prescription would cost $3,000 a month and would not be covered by her insurance.

“I don’t use the synthetic stuff. I choose to illegally use medical cannabis, and therefore I could be arrested at any time. And I’ve been coming up here for six years, talking to everyone here, trying to go through the appropriate route, telling them I’m a criminal because of my medical choice,” Post said.

Another supporter, Dominic Gillen, said his family takes a more cautious approach treating his son Will, whose seizures could be helped by medical cannabis.

“We’ve dipped our toes into the water – I’ll say that. Because we’re looking at – our fear all along has been, you know, who’s going to show up at our door and take our kids away?” Gillen said.

As of Tuesday morning, all 11 co-sponsors of the bill legalizing medical cannabis were registered Democrats in the officially nonpartisan Legislature. But Wishart said she’s optimistic some Republicans will support it.

“I feel confident we’ll have bipartisan support. The goal is having enough to overcome what, inevitably, will be a filibuster against this bill,” Wishart said.

That will require support from 33 of the Legislature’s 49 senators. Trish Petersen, director of Nebraska Families for Medical Cannabis, suggested the lack of Republican sponsors reflects the opposition and campaign contributions by Gov. Pete Ricketts. Ricketts has opposed states’ legalizing medical cannabis, saying the proper procedure is to go through the federal Food and Drug Administration. Wishart said she expects the federal position to change under the administration of President Joe Biden. Meanwhile, she said if her bill doesn’t pass, supporters will be back with another initiative petition next year. A public hearing on Wishart’s bill is scheduled for March 10.

Also Tuesday, the Education Committee held a public hearing on a proposal by Sen. Joni Albrecht to require Nebraska schools to teach students about preventing sexual abuse. Ivy Svoboda of the Nebraska Alliance of Child Advocacy Centers said the problem is widespread.

“Child sexual abuse is all too common in our society. The best national estimates are that one in ten children will experience contact or hands-on sexual abuse before they turn 18. Others will be sexually abused through non-contact exploitation. Only about a third will disclose that abuse occurred. Even a smaller fraction of those reports will ever make it to our child protection or law enforcement systems,” Svoboda said.

Karen Mueller, a school social worker, said the kind of training envisioned in Albrecht’s bill could have helped her when she was a child.

“I was never told about safe vs. uncomfortable touches. And when something made me feel uncomfortable, I did not know at the time to report it. My abuse went on for two years,” Mueller said.

The bill also requires training school personnel in how to communicate with students about sexual abuse. School social worker Carrie Erks said she didn’t know how to do that when she started in the field 20 years ago, and many adults still don’t know.

“If most of us as adults are unwilling or unable to have these types of conversations with our children, how will they be brave enough to talk about such sensitive information with us?” Erks asked.

Speaking for the Nebraska Association of School Boards and the Rural Community Schools Association, Colby Coash opposed the bill – not because of what would be taught, but because it would be put into law.

“Our opposition to this bill is not related to the intent of LB281 or the content of instruction that is mandated within the bill. Body awareness training for students, educator training as prevention methods are appropriate. Our opposition to this bill stems from the approach of statutory change, as opposed to the normal process of curriculum and content standards development of which schools are used to,” Coash said.

Coash said the state Department of Education is working on changes in health education standards that will include some of the same elements as Albrecht’s bill, and those will be released next month.

Connie Duncan, a member of the Lincoln Board of Education, also opposed the bill. Duncan said Lincoln already does this kind of instruction. But she objected to a part of the proposal that directs schools to use federal funds from the Every Student Succeeds Act to pay for it, saying that could require schools to cut other programs paid for by the act, or raise property taxes.

Albrecht said she’s willing to work with the Department of Education on alternative approaches to implementing the proposal. But she said she doesn’t want to see it watered down.