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'They're not going to stop us' -- medical marijuana advocates push forward

'They're not going to stop us' -- medical marijuana advocates push forward

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Medical Marijuana

Riley Slezak (left) and Nebraska State Sen. Adam Morfeld collect signatures for the 2022 medical marijuana petition outside of the Tavern on the Square in the Haymarket on Saturday.

With the election 10 days away, a lot of issues in Nebraska will be at stake.

One that won't be is a vote nearly 200,000 people were expecting when they signed an initiative petition in the past year — mostly during a pandemic — to allow Nebraskans to vote on whether medical cannabis should be legal in this state.

Crista Eggers, a mom with a 6-year-old son, Colton, who has intractable seizures, was one of those voters working through the spring and summer to qualify the initiative petition for the 2020 ballot.

Colton has tried more than 12 pharmaceutical medications and 20 combinations to treat his seizures. The drugs haven't worked, and there's not a lot more doctors can do to help him, although they keep trying, his mom said.

It is for that reason Eggers found herself in David City in late spring, sitting at a table in front of the post office there, waiting for someone to come by and sign a petition that would allow a vote on medical cannabis.

She didn't have a lot of confidence she would be successful getting the number of names she needed for Butler County, but she was there. Within five minutes of the time she arrived, a truck carrying three men had come to a stop at the light about 20 feet from her.

And one of those men leaned out of the truck and threw an uncapped water bottle filled with tobacco chew spit in her direction, landing about five feet from her.

"It assured me that I was not wanted there," she said.

She wanted to pack up and run, but knowing what was at stake, she stuck it out. And a few minutes later things began to turn around. Eggers got the needed signatures that weekend.

What made her continue, and come back the next day, were the stories she heard.

"I've been changed by those stories and those people," she said. 

People with a parent or a child or a spouse who needed the option to try medical cannabis for relief.

But after the volunteers and others turned in more than 190,000 signatures, many more than needed, and the initiative was certified to be placed on the ballot, came the news that a challenge to ballot language had ended with a 5-2 ruling by the Nebraska Supreme Court that the measure violated the single-subject law. It was eliminated from the 2020 election.

Eggers and others were crushed, they said. 

Crushed, but not deterred.

The Supreme Court majority had said if voters were to intelligently adopt a state policy on medicinal cannabis use, they must first be allowed to decide that issue alone, unencumbered by other subjects.

Two justices who dissented from the ruling said the decision had "squeezed" the concept of single subject such that the people's right to initiative had been diminished.

But this week, Sen. Anna Wishart, who led the petition effort with Sen. Adam Morfeld, filed new language with the Nebraska Secretary of State's office that reads: Persons in the state of Nebraska shall have the right to cannabis in all its forms for medical purposes.

And the advocates were out again Saturday collecting signatures.

Wishart said she learned she is resilient, more than she even knew she could be.

"I put my heart and soul and a lot of hours into that initiative," she said. "And a lot of miles on my car."

With some other ballot initiatives, a campaign team and most signature collectors are paid. Not with this one.

"This was moms and me, traveling out to all parts of Nebraska and staying for days and collecting signatures, and sitting outside of Casey's gas station and texting everyone and telling them to come by," she said.

It was a lot of time away from her family, she said.

People counted them out in March when COVID-19 stopped petition drives. And they counted them out in May when they still had 123,000 signatures to collect.

But they learned that if you want something bad enough and you're willing to work hard enough, no amount of challenges are going to get in the way, Wishart said.

Another big lesson is that the Legislature needs to show up in 2021 and do its job and put into place a safe medical cannabis system, she said.

"We should have done it seven years ago. But enough is enough."

The polling shows well more than 70% of Nebraskans support it, she said.

Barry Rubin, government and public affairs consultant and president of Heartland Strategy Group, managed the signature-gathering effort in the last two months of the campaign.

He's unabashedly critical of the Supreme Court, knowing that a number of constitutional experts in Nebraska and other states vetted the petition language and saw the single-subject issue differently.

After the decision, former Nebraska Attorney General Don Stenberg, a Republican, wrote that: "A rule of law, such as the 'one subject' requirement, that imposes a death sentence on successful initiative petition drives that have gathered over 100,000 signatures, but fail a test whose application the best lawyers cannot agree on, is a rule of law that needs to be changed."

He suggested the Legislature should put a proposed amendment to the Constitution on the 2022 ballot to eliminate the one-subject requirement for all initiative petitions and require that when a successful petition has more than one subject, each subject will be placed on the ballot separately and voted on separately.

Five members of the Supreme Court, Rubin said, put their personal, political views ahead of the law. They had an end they wanted to reach, he said, so they artfully opined the means to get it there, taking the vote from nearly 200,000 Nebraskans who signed the petition.

Chief Justice Mike Heavican, who wrote the majority opinion, comes from a prosecution background, having served as both Lancaster County Attorney from 1981 to 1991, then criminal chief for the U.S. Attorney's Office before being appointed U.S. Attorney. He'd had a focus during those years on drug enforcement, and had spoken publicly about marijuana being a gateway drug to harder drug use.

Now the Legislature should do its job, Rubin said, and pass a conservative, responsible law that will allow Nebraskans with serious medical conditions to access this medicine.

"And if they don't, we'll be back with this one in 2022 that's more aggressive," he said. "They're not going to stop us and it's coming, whether they like it or not."

Eggers said listening to people across the state and their stories of parents with cancer, husbands with Parkinson's disease, children with intractable seizures, has given her strength and motivation.

"In the end, money won, personal agendas won, and the voice of the people was completely tossed aside," she said. "It's heartbreaking ... so many of those people can't wait. They don't have another two years, another four years."

People will leave the state to get help for their families, she said. Thirty-three states have approved comprehensive, publicly available medical cannabis programs.

But others can't leave, Eggers said, and politicians with money and people with power have said to them: You don't matter. 

"But these aren't people that are just going to back down," she said.

Top Journal Star photos for October

Reach the writer at 402-473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com

On Twitter @LJSLegislature

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