Nebraska Medical Marijuana Campaign Makes ‘Final’ Push For The Ballot, As Activist Blasts Governor’s Opposition As A ‘Cop Out’

September 26, 2023 · marijuanamoment.net

This is the third election cycle in a row that Crista Eggers has led the fight to put medical marijuana legalization on the Nebraska ballot. But this is the last time, she says. Defeat is simply not an option she’s willing to accept.

“There’s just no choice,” she told Marijuana Moment in a recent phone interview. “I keep calling it the final time—not because there would be any giving up, but this is the final time. We’re going to get it done.”

Nebraskans for Medical Marijuana (NMM) faced devastating setbacks in its last two attempts. They collected enough signatures for ballot placement in 2020, only to see the state Supreme Court invalidate their measure on a constitutional single subject challenge. And last year, the grassroots campaign came up short in signatures after one of their main donors died suddenly in a plane crash, financially hamstringing the petitioners.

But the campaign has taken on a different tone this round. It’s a resolve grounded in experience and driven by the stories of Nebraskans who are sick, who are increasingly desperate and who have lost faith in their lawmakers to provide any level of regulated access to a plant that could help them and their loved ones.

Eggers, who is serving as NMM’s campaign manager, has a “very personal connection to this.” Her nine-year-old son has a severe form of epilepsy. The pharmaceuticals he’s prescribed do not quell the seizures and come with serious side effects. Medical cannabis offers an effective and natural alternative, and Eggers wants to give her son and other patients the right to access it.

Gov. Jim Pillen (R) has already voiced opposition to the reform effort, saying this month that legalization “poses demonstrated harms to our children,” and that medical cannabis should only be accessible if its approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Eggers called that argument a “cop out,” and she says the campaign will let voters decide for themselves.

“We can’t stop until we get that done. That’s where we’re at, and that’s how our campaign feels,” she said. “We just keep showing up. And the reason we have to do that is because there is no option.”

The campaign got an early start on signature gathering this cycle. Volunteers have been filling out petitions since July, about two months after turning in the pair of complementary legalization initiatives to the secretary of state’s office. Already they say they’ve reached the required signature percentage threshold in two of 38 needed counties, and they’re aiming to get the rest done by the year’s end.

At a fundraising kickoff event this month, Eggers was joined by NMM co-chairs Sen. Anna Wishart (D), former Sen. Adam Morfeld (D) and a couple dozen supporters who are readying for this “final” push. Their message to the state was direct: This can happen, but it’s going to take a village. Every dollar, every petition, every volunteer and every vote will count.

“The child that’s experiencing seizures—or the patient with ALS or cancer—they don’t have a choice. They have to show up. They have to keep pushing forward,” Eggers said. “That’s what we have to do as well.”

To avoid a single subject challenge, the campaign has two initiatives. The first would require lawmakers to codify protections for doctors who recommend cannabis and patients who purchase and possess it—essentially creating qualified immunity. The second would create a new Nebraska Medical Cannabis Commission to provide “necessary registration and regulation of persons that possess, manufacture, distribute, deliver, and dispense cannabis for medical purposes.”

In order to make the November 2024 ballot, activists will need to collect about 87,000 total valid signatures from registered voters for each petition—in addition to meeting the county goal—and turn them in by July 5, 2024.

Eggers spoke with Marijuana Moment about the medical cannabis legalization campaign, lessons learned from their past efforts and what reform would mean for Nebraska. The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Marijuana Moment: Your campaign just had its formal fundraising launch. How did that go? What were your takeaways?

Crista Eggers: It was very well-received. We had an amazing group who came out to support us financially and with their presence to come sign the petition and also to take petitions and go collect themselves. So it’s very exciting. We had some wonderful news coverage, which was very favorable for us and helped get the word out that we are launching.

Oftentimes, you know, as we are moving forward a third time, there’s a little bit of confusion. This is a new petition. So the more that we can get the word out, the better to let people know this is a brand new petition drive. This is for 2024. Our main message to folks is that we’ve always had this belief that we need millions of dollars to get this done. And so often, that is the way that ballot initiatives within Nebraska—that’s usually how they are done is lots of funding. Last go around, we ended up having a situation where we lost our funder, and we’re faced with, “Do we push forward grassroots and basically run it volunteer with no money or do we throw in the towel and come back another time?” And, overwhelmingly, we decided we had to push forward. There was no option.

We’re trying to be a voice and a group that is advocating for so many people in this state who aren’t able to, and it just wasn’t an option to not keep pushing forward. We were able to come so incredibly close [last time]. We ended up being short a little bit of the overall signature threshold necessary. And then we also failed to get enough counties for the 38-county requirement.

With that being said, what we took from it was Nebraskans overwhelmingly support this issue, enough so that when we put out a callout and said, “Nebraska, it’s up to you guys. If you want this on the ballot, we’ve got to come out, you’ve got to sign. It’s not the traditional signature drive. You’re going to have to come to us. We won’t be able to come to you.” And we saw in three and a half weeks’ time, we collected thousands and thousands of signatures. So moving forward to 2024, we now know that we can do this, and we can do it on a very, very shoestring budget. And we hope that we don’t have to do that again. It was very difficult, very challenging, but it was possible.

Every penny that is coming into the campaign is going right back to printing petitions and, honestly, that’s our main thing—printing petitions and getting them in the hands of volunteers. So we’re really excited to pull in some funding from our event so that we can put it right back into getting more volunteers going and are excited to see what this fall is going to bring in terms of our movement across the state.

MM: The last two attempts fell short for one reason or another. That must certainly be frustrating for supporters overall, but I imagine it’s uniquely frustrating to you as a mother of a child with epilepsy.

CE: I don’t know if I could adequately put into words the devastation that came from last year’s campaign. We were dealt so many tough blows. And obviously in life, that is what happens, right? And we rise above it and we push through. But at the end of last campaign, there definitely was some time when I needed to step aside and figure out how to move forward and what that looked like for my family.

I have a very personal connection to this. I have a son who I have desperately been fighting for for many years. And what ended up happening is, on the day that I said, “I don’t think I can do this anymore, I cannot throw myself into this and continue on this journey. Someone else needs to take over,” I also found myself looking at my son and thinking about all the other parents who are feeling the same pain, and all of the other patients and caregivers in our state who they themselves are reeling from knowing that this wasn’t going to be before voters in 2022—that we were going to have to wait. I just realized that there was no way for me to move forward without going right back in and continuing this fight, not just for my child, but to help organize and do this for the entire state.

That’s what our sole mission has been: to make sure that people in this state who are suffering have a treatment option of cannabis when everything else fails or what they’re using currently is causing more harm than good. We can’t stop until we get that done. And that’s where we’re at and that’s how our campaign feels. We just keep showing up, and the reason we have to do that is because there is no option. The child that’s experiencing seizures—or the patient with ALS or cancer—they don’t have a choice. They have to show up. And they have to keep pushing forward. That’s what we have to do as well.

MM: The governor said he opposes the reform, calling medical marijuana dangerous for children and arguing that it should only be available with FDA approval. Can I get your reaction to that?

CE: My first thought is that I actually disagree. I watch every day around me—I’ve watched the news, we listen to the radio, watch social media—and what is harming children overwhelmingly in this state, and I believe around the country, is not marijuana. It is alcohol. It is prescription drugs. It is laced street drugs. It is fentanyl. It’s an opioid epidemic that is so out of control in this nation that you can’t go a day without hearing how that’s affecting people. And so I would push back that I think it’s a cop out to say that marijuana is harming our children. I think there are many other things that are harming them far more than what I’m proposing, which is a medical cannabis system to help sick and suffering people.

The next part of that about the FDA approval process? You know, I think it’s two parts, right? This should have never been scheduled as a Schedule I drug. Most everyone can agree that marijuana and ecstasy are not in the same class. And so that needs to change and we know that the federal government is indicating this is going to be rescheduled, but it hasn’t happened yet. In the meantime, all these other states across the nation have gone forward with passing laws and creating systems, both medically and then obviously also for adult-use, recreational marijuana use. Not one time has the federal government come in and repealed or overturned the law and said, “No, no, no, you can’t do that.” So I think it’s very clear, the federal government has said we’re going to let the states decide and this is a states’ issue. We look across the nation and everybody around us has done it. Everybody else has seen that we need to do something about this to help people.

I could tell you, personally for me, what is hurting my child. I’m not worried about some marijuana oils and cannabis oil that I put under his tongue. But what I do worry about each and every day is the medication that I pump into his body to hopefully do something to these horrific seizures. So when I look at the things that are harming him, it’s continuous seizures. His little brain is seizing all the time. And that’s what’s killing my child. The pharmaceutical drugs that are so nasty and being used so off-label because they don’t know what else to do. These are FDA-approved drugs.

My son is on a blackbox medication, which means that the FDA approved it and later came back and said, “Wait a minute, people are being harmed by this.” And now individuals that are prescribed it and taking it actually sign something that says that they understand the risk in the hope that the proposed benefit is worth that risk. FDA approval does not mean safe. It does not mean no side effects. It doesn’t mean unknown things in the future can’t happen. In fact, I would push back on all those because my son, at nine years old, is taking medications that are approved through FDA. So I struggle with the whole FDA argument. I really do.

At the end of the day, we know that the federal government or the FDA is able to push something through. They still haven’t, and so I’m not going to let that change our fight for what I truly believe is right and what is best for the patients in our state.

MM: There have been efforts to legalize medical marijuana through the legislature, including bills from NMM co-chair Sen. Anna Wishart, but they’ve consistently stalled out. Do you have hope that lawmakers might eventually enact reform?

CE: I have always remained hopeful, but I’m also looking at things from a realistic standpoint, and the Nebraska legislature has had over 10 years, multiple attempts to pass medical cannabis laws—to pass laws that would be the most restrictive, most conservative and narrow medical cannabis laws in the nation. In fact, many people in the industry would say that will never help anybody.

We have tried to compromise and try to strike a balance with those that are opposing it. And we are still left session after session, year after year, with nothing. So it’s very clear to me that it is not going to happen that way. And anything that does move that we see within the legislative body, I don’t believe will help patients.

In fact, in last spring session here in 2023, we brought what was called the most conservative and narrow medical bill that had ever been brought. It put a very narrow scope of ailments—very, very strict rules and regulations—and we could not move that out of committee. And what we did is we decided to narrow it even more in hopes that it would move, and we brought a Right to Try, an amendment that only included catastrophic forms of epilepsy and would also not create an industry in the state so that patients, even if recommended cannabis for the seizures, they didn’t have a way to get it. They would still need to illegally get it in another state and bring it back. Even our Right to Try law with no industry that would actually help patients, they could not even pass that through committee.

At that moment, I knew this will never happen and actually be effective. And so I 150 percent believe going to the people is the only way that patients in Nebraska will have safe access.

MM: Based on your experience, how common is it for patients and families in Nebraska to move to states like Colorado in order to access medical cannabis?

CE: It’s happening all the time. It’s happening definitely more frequently, and it is a bit easier now that Missouri—we share border with them—they are now a legal state. So patients are actually going to other states today. And, unfortunately, they’re also trying to access it within our state in very unsafe ways, acquiring products that they don’t know where it’s come from, what’s in it or if it’s safe. But these patients don’t have another choice, and so it truly puts them in a corner of, “I’m going to be a criminal whether I get it here or go across the border and bring it back.”

I would say the good majority of people that are doing that, they’re doing it because they are suffering or a family member is suffering and they are treating some type of medical ailment. Unfortunately, those individuals need to talk to their doctors—the cancer patient needs to be able to talk to their doctor about what would be best, how cannabis can be used for their given situation, whether it’s wasting syndrome or nausea from chemotherapy. Right now, patients can’t ask their doctor. They can’t talk to their doctors about it.

I know that from experience with having a child, who—I can’t utter the words “medical marijuana” to his practitioners because they legally know that they cannot touch this issue. It’s illegal. Therefore, we can’t have a conversation about it. So I really think it puts patients in such a horrible position to either be a criminal, risk their livelihood—many of these people,  if caught coming across the border possessing marijuana, they could could lose their livelihood, right? And these are individuals who the very last thing they should be doing is having to white knuckle it across state lines to get their medicine, right?

That is just a tragedy within a tragedy, and it breaks my heart hearing people say that it works for them, and it works for their loved one, but they just can’t. They can’t get it safely. Again, they don’t feel comfortable going and getting it, and many of these people are choosing to move.

I will tell you, I talk to people all the time—previous supporters of our initiative, previous volunteers—and they have since moved. They have decided that they just cannot stay here anymore. And, unfortunately, that’s not an option for everybody to just uproot and move, and they shouldn’t have to. That is such a horrible thing that we think it’s okay in our state to let people uproot their families so that they can actually get medical care. Those are all challenges I see.

The last couple of weeks here, I actually began reaching out to some of our amazing people who have gathered signatures in all parts of the states. There are individuals that have since passed away. And, in that moment, thinking about what we have ahead of us—and what these two individuals, as patients themselves, they were hurting, they were down and out, and they were still out collecting signatures. And it’s heartbreaking to think that they didn’t have the access they needed, and they were forced to be criminals and spend the last part of their life fighting for it in in every way possible, including something that was helping them. That’s the hardest.

I am vowing that we’re not going to let another election cycle go by and not get this done. There’s just no choice. I keep calling it the “final time,” not because there would be any giving up, you know, but this is a final time. We’re going to get it done. We are motivated. We’re hurting, and we’re going to take that hurt really from the last few years and we’re going to put it into something good Once and for all, we will get to do an interview when we talk about how successful Nebraska was.

MM: What message would you send to Nebraskans as you enter this “final” push?

CE: I think there’s three parts our campaign. We do need funding. We need grassroots dollars, and I cannot begin to express how important all donations are. If a person can get $5, that puts $5 of gas into a volunteer’s car who’s going out to a county. Someone’s $100 donation helps us gather 100 more petitions to send out with volunteers across the state.

The next part is that not everyone is in a position, obviously, to financially contribute—and that’s okay because there’s a lot of other ways and one of those is getting in touch with us, going to [the campaign site] and signing up to get petitions and go gather some signatures from friends, family, in your neighborhood, at your church—wherever it may be, go out and gather some signatures. Because if every Nebraskan who says this issue is important to them did that, we would be done. We would absolutely be done, and we would be sitting here just collecting so many signatures that on turn-in day, we would need U-Hauls for signatures. So that is a very small, tangible way that people can make an impact.

The final one is, if you can’t volunteer and you can’t donate, that’s okay. Not everyone can be in a position to. But what everybody hopefully is able to do is track down a petition at some point here—and the sooner the better because we do know that everybody comes at the end when we put out the all-call and the alert. We’re hoping that we don’t have to do that this time—that we come in next spring and we feel confident we had hit our numbers and we’re just working on overage so that we come in so strong and so successful that there isn’t a doubt that this will be on the ballot. (Full Story)

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