A Nebraska senator is leading efforts to legalize medical cannabis oil. Sen. Tommy Garrett visited Gering Friday as part of a public awareness campaign on a bill before the legislature.
During the 2015 legislative session, Garrett, of Bellevue, introduced LB 643. LB 643, the Cannabis Compassion and Care Act, would legalize medical marijuana for patients with specific chronic or terminal illnesses, including cancer, glaucoma, Crohn’s disease and epilepsy. The cannabis could be ingested as a liquid, pill or liquid vapor, but could not be smoked.
During Friday’s press conference, Garrett spoke about his proposal for Nebraska to implement and model medical marijuana after a program in Minnesota.
A self-described “goodie two shoes,” Garrett said he became interested in the issue after being visited by mothers who are seeking the legalization of cannabis oil to allow its use for treating epilepsy experienced by their children. The parents have sought treatment for their children and believe that cannaboid oil could be a viable option for treating their children. Garrett said he has also had experience with medical uses of marijuana, having a family member who had been told by a doctor that marijuana could aid his appetite while being treated for cancer.
“Medical marijuana has efficacy,” he said, noting studies done by neurologists at Stanford University, Colorado State University, Tel Aviv University, John Hopkins University and others.
Twenty-five states, Guam and Puerto Rico have legalized medical marijuana. As a retired Air Force intelligence officer, Garrett says he has done his research, even noting that he visited Minnesota, and believes legalizing medical marijuana is the right thing to do. Some states have better regulations than others, Garrett said. He said he is not interested in following Colorado’s lead, where medical marijuana was legalized by a ballot measure. The Minnesota law has more regulation, he said. If medical marijuana is legalized, providers of the oil would have to register with the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.
Doctors who prescribe medical marijuana would also have to be registered with NDHHS and prescriptions would be overseen by the agency. Minnesota has not experienced any issues, including law enforcement issues, since it was implemented earlier this year.
“It’s a compassion issue. It’s not a law enforcement issue,” Garrett said. “It is about people, folks who do not have any other options.”
Shari Lawlor of Valley, has a daughter, Brooke, who suffers from severe epileptic seizures. Lawlor and her husband are interested in cannabis oil as an option for their 22-year-old daughter. Brooke was diagnosed with epilepsy when she was 15 months old.
She is currently on four anti-seizure medications, at a cost of $34,000 a year because she is on Medicaid, and continues to suffer such severe seizures that her next options would be brain surgery, her mother said. The family has tried a variety of options, from special diets to vagal nerve stimulator implants that use electrical impulses to the brain to prevent or reduce the severity of seizures.
“Constantly, since this happened, we have been trying to discover new treatments for her (Brooke) because everything we have tried … all of the pharmas that she has tried … known of them have worked,” she said, holding up a large bag of medications that her daughter has taken. The medicines also have serious side effects, including increased suicide risk, a disorder where the body stops producing new blood cells because the bone marrow has been damaged called aplastic anemia and organ damage.
Lawlor said that families advocating for medical marijuana are interested in the oil, not in smoking marijuana. She noted that the oil costs $200 to $250 a bottle and it needs to be pure, free of pesticides and fungicides, and parents want their children to be under the care of a supervising physician. Medical marijuana is not currently covered by insurance or Medicaid, so it would be patient pay.
“I would rather it be part of a science, doctor-patient relationship,” she said. “…This is not a crime. This is a medicine to us. It’s another opportunity. Another option for our people to try.”
Dominic Gillen, of Bellevue, spoke about his son, Will, who suffers dozens of seizures a day. The 12-year-old boy has to wear a helmet because of the frequent injuries that he incurs during a seizure. Will suffers 50 to 60 seizures a day and he has had them since he was an infant. Like the Lawlors, the Gillens have exhausted their options. Surgery is the only remaining option barring the legalization of medical marijuana.
Gillen urged citizens to come together to help Nebraskans who would benefit from medical marijuana, like they do to help others and to educate and contact their senators.
Garrett said he has been contacted by people throughout the state who are suffering from medical conditions and want to see medical marijuana legalized. Garrett said he has even heard from people who self-medicate with marijuana and he would like those people to have legal options available for treatment.
“There are Nebraskans out there who are desperate. They are self-medicating. They are hurting. They are out of alternatives. That is why I am fighting for this bill.”
Some opponents have been unable to separate the medical uses of marijuana from recreational use of marijuana, Lawlor, Gillen and Garrett said.
“One of the issues we hear a lot is that it is a slippery slope. I don’t feel that it is. If you look at how this bill has been scrutinized, it will take another bill to pass recreational use. Unfortunately, it is a good scare tactic,” Gillen said. “Nobody who uses (recreational) marijuana is waiting for a medical marijuana law to use it. They are already getting it.”
Nationally, Garrett said, people have become more aware, and supportive, of medicinal use of marijuana. Garrett and Gillen noted that prescription medications used for the treatment of pain continue to be the most abused drug and prescription drug overdose deaths continue to climb. However, Garrett said, no one has undertaken efforts to make those medications illegal. Gillen said he believes that medical marijuana has a place in the medical community, if used appropriately, like prescription medications.
Garrett said passage of LB 643 is about compassion and helping patients who suffer from illnesses that can be treated with marijuana, including the epilepsy experienced by Lawlor and Gillen’s children.
“When you hold your child, and they are sick or hurting, you will do anything for your child,” Garrett said. “These parents are out of options … and if the next step in their treatment is brain surgery, why don’t we allow them to try (medical marijuana)?”