- Associated Press - Thursday, March 5, 2020

LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) - A former Nebraska lawmaker and anti-marijuana activist was confirmed Thursday to the state’s public health board despite criticism from advocates who are pushing a ballot measure to legalize the drug for medicinal use.

Lawmakers voted 32-3 to approve John Kuehn for a seat on the Nebraska Board of Health. If voters legalize it in the November election, the 17-member board could end up imposing rules and regulations on doctors who offer medical marijuana.

Kuehn is a close ally of Republican Gov. Pete Ricketts, who appointed him to the seat, and both men strongly oppose legalizing the drug. Kuehn serves as co-chairman of Smart Approaches to Marijuana Nebraska, a group that recently launched a public campaign to highlight the dangers of the drug.

One lawmaker who is leading the petition drive to legalize medical marijuana questioned whether Kuehn would be fair in his new role.

“It’s about making sure we have someone on the board of health who’s not going to be biased,” said Sen. Adam Morfeld, of Lincoln, a volunteer co-chairman of the petition group Nebraskans for Medical Marijuana.

Morfeld pointed to the governor’s efforts to implement a Medicaid expansion ballot measure approved by voters in 2018. He has argued that administration officials are slow-walking the implementation and have added burdensome requirements to undermine the new law. Administration officials have denied the allegation, saying they need time to ensure everything will go smoothly when coverage begins in October.

Sen. Ernie Chambers, of Omaha, said he doesn’t trust Kuehn to implement a medical marijuana law fairly if voters approve it.

“The governor is like Donald Trump. You think he’s going to appoint someone who would go against an issue that he’s already politicized?” Chambers said. “The governor’s thumb is on John Kuehn when it comes to medical cannabis.”

Kuehn’s defenders said they were confident he would follow the law and argued that every board member has personal biases.

“I think it’s inappropriate for us to assume that because he has taken a stand on an issue, that he would not comport himself with the law of the land,” said Sen. Suzanne Geist, of Lincoln.

Others said Kuehn was well-qualified for a seat that few people want to fill. Kuehn’s new position on the state health board is unpaid.

“These boards struggle to find qualified people to serve on them,” said Sen. Julie Slama, of Peru.

State law requires a variety of health care professionals and laypeople to serve on the board, including surgeons, dentists, chiropractors, nurses and hospital administrators. Kuehn will represent veterinarians on the board. He’s also a rancher and biology professor at Hastings College.

Kuehn served in the Nebraska Legislature from 2015 to 2019, but decided not to seek re-election to a second term. As a lawmaker, he played a major role in a legislative package to regulate prescription painkillers in response to the national opioid epidemic.

Sen. Sara Howard, of Omaha, said Kuehn “went to the mattresses” against his fellow veterinarians who opposed the opioid legislation.

“He really was a great help,” said Howard, chairwoman of the Legislature’s Health and Human Services Committee.

Kuehn also championed “Right to Farm” legislation to shield farmers from lawsuits and was a member of the Legislature’s budget-writing Appropriations Committee. After Kuehn left office, Ricketts appointed him to the Nebraska Economic Forecasting Advisory Board, which projects how much tax revenue the state will collect. During Ricketts‘ first run for governor in 2014, Kuehn served on an agricultural task force to advise the campaign.


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