By GRANT SCHULTE
LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - Families that want to legalize medical marijuana are raising money and lining up donors for a possible 2016 ballot drive, even though Nebraska lawmakers say they’ll address the issue next session.
Parents with sick children who lobbied for a measure that stalled this year have formed a new nonprofit, Nebraska Families 4 Medical Cannabis, to explore a citizen-led petition drive.
Though the group won’t announce its decision until next month when members have a firm plan in place, president Shelley Gillen said, she has already spoke with possible financiers and a GoFundMe page has so far received more than $6,100 of the $7,500 the group wants for the initial push.
“We are looking at some different options,” said Gillen, of Bellevue. “We want to become more vocal and recognized as law-abiding citizens who want safe, legal access to medical cannabis.”
If the ballot campaign proceeds, it would replace a low-budget petition drive that’s already under way through Omaha’s chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Chapter founder Bryan Boganowksi said his group is approaching 20,000 signatures with an all-volunteer drive based primarily in Omaha, but it quickly became clear that deep-pocketed donors and paid workers are necessary.
“It comes down to money,” Boganowski said. “Volunteers alone can’t pull this off. It’s going to take paid petition circulators.”
Boganowksi said his group would throw its support - and collected contact information - behind Nebraska Families 4 Medical Cannabis if the ballot campaign happens.
Gathering signatures for a ballot measure could be easier under a new state law that goes into effect Aug. 30. The law allows petition organizers to pay circulators by the signature instead of by the hour, something supporters say gives circulators an incentive to gather more and makes it easier for organizers to estimate how much a petition drive will cost.
Signature gathering could become easier still depending on the outcome of a federal court case, in which a federal judge struck down a requirement that petition signatures come from registered voters in at least 38 of Nebraska’s 93 counties. Judge Joseph Bataillon suspended his November ruling while the case is appealed, but if the decision is upheld, petition circulators could concentrate their efforts in metropolitan areas and avoid the travel costs and difficulty of gathering signatures in rural areas.
Gillen said that instead of pursuing a ballot initiative, members could simply renew their focus on the Legislature next year, given that Nebraska lawmakers gave first-round approval in the 2015 session to a bill that would have allowed liquid, pill or vapor forms of medical cannabis to treat symptoms of some diseases.
Sen. Tommy Garrett of Bellevue shelved his proposal late in the session amid concerns that it had lost support, but he promised to bring it back when the new session begins in January. Some conservative lawmakers opposed the bill, and Republican Attorney General Doug Peterson voiced concerns that it could create a path to recreational use. Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts questioned the drug’s medicinal value.
If it passes, Nebraska would join 23 other states and the District of Columbia in allowing marijuana for medical use, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Gillen’s 13-year-old son, Will, suffers from Lennox-Gastaut syndrome, a rare and severe form of epilepsy. He doesn’t speak, is legally blind and has the cognitive skills of a 2-year-old. He wears a padded helmet with a faceguard to protect him from violent seizures. All treatments have failed and led to nasty side effects, she said, including a weakened immune system and damaged stomach lining.
Their last option, aside from cannabis oil, is brain surgery. Gillen said the oil derived from marijuana doesn’t guarantee that her son’s condition will improve, but it has been reported to decrease the frequency and severity of seizures and improve patients’ cognitive abilities.
Group member Shari Lawlor, whose 22-year-old daughter suffers from seizures, said the group plans to run a statewide poll to gauge voter support for medical marijuana.
“Right now we’re stockpiling money to see how far we can get,” said Lawlor, of Valley. “It’s hard to have to wait this long.”