The Fran Zabloudil Story

By Melody M. Loughry
Issues Now

        LINCOLN, Neb. -- The walls of Francis Zabloudil's photography studio are a "who's who" of prominent Nebraskans, with portraits ranging from Nebraska Supreme Court Justices and legendary University of Nebraska coaches Tom Osborne and Danny Nee to former Gov. Kay Orr and former Lincoln Mayor Helen Boosalis.  Interwoven among images of the 64-year-old photographer's well-known customers are portraits of families, friends, high school seniors, many bearing ribbons and placards, declarations of excellence awarded by his professional peers.
        By all appearances, Zabloudil's studio at 2544 O Street should be a busy place, filled with the sounds of a ringing phone, the clicking of the camera shutter, voices of clients inquiring about their appearance, and the soothing words of the photographer who for years has made it his business to put clients at ease and cast them in their best light.  But the studio filled with hundreds of smiling, confident faces is silent except for the sound of Zabloudil's footsteps as he shuffles from room to room, tidying up and running his hands along the handsomely framed memories that line the walls.
        At an age when most men are thinking of retirement, the white-haired, soft-spoken, photographer wants to continue making a living practicing the art that made him one of the region's most sought-after studio photographers for more than 25 years.  But the silence of his studio is a daily reminder that his business has suffered a near-fatal blow.
        On Nov. 15, 1995, Lincoln police raided Zabloudil's O Street studio during the evening rush hour and seized 49 small marijuana plants growing under lights in a third-floor attic, jailed the photographer and prosecutors charged him with manufacturing, distributing, delivering or dispensing a controlled substance in a school zone; possession of a controlled substance; and possession of firearms while possessing more than one pound of marijuana.  For 27 months, Zabloudil has maintained that he grew marijuana only for his own use, as medicine to treat epilepsy-related petit mal seizures diagnosed in 1989.
        All charges against Zabloudil recently were dismissed after Lancaster County District Judge Paul Merritt found that evidence couldn't be used against him because police lacked probable cause to search the studio.  Now, Zabloudil should be able to pick up where he left off three years ago.
        But the stigma of his arrest lingers, and his reputation and business continue to suffer.
        "I'm a nice guy, a person with children and grandchildren.  I'm still the photographer I was before all of this happened.   I just think there are people who don't understand," he said.
        A Lincoln neurologist diagnosed Zabloudil with epilepsy in 1989, after his wife became alarmed when he had uncontrollable spasms characteristic of grand mal seizures.  Other than family members' accounts of the "glazed look" he has during petit mal seizures, and the realization that he can't account for brief periods of his life, Zabloudil has no memory of his epileptic seizures, which result in a temporary loss of consciousness that can occur at any time.   His doctor prescribed Phenobarbital, a powerful barbiturate, to control the seizures, but Zabloudil experienced the drug's side effects, including depression, sleep disturbances and a semi-hypnotic state that made it difficult for him to work.  He researched Phenobarbital and was alarmed to learn of additional and frightening potential side effects: reduction of brain neurotransmitter function, liver damage, respiratory problems, cardiac irregularity, anemia, addiction, and in cases of overdose, death.
        Zabloudil came to regard his medication as poison to his body and began investigating other means of treating his epilepsy.
        "It's the most frustrating thing in the world to have an illness and know that the medicine you're taking for it has side affects that can really hurt you," he said.  "The memory loss is the worst thing for me.
        Zabloudil found a plethora of authoritative, scientific literature, including Journal of the American Medical Association studies dating back to 1937, indicating that marijuana, in appropriate doses, can safely and effectively be used to treat convulsions associated with epilepsy.  He also discovered the plant's long history of alleviating suffering associated with a variety of other illness, including multiple sclerosis, depression, nausea associated with chemotherapy and malnutrition related to AIDS treatment.
        "I was stunned that the truth about marijuana had been kept from us for so long," said Zabloudil.  "From what I've learned and experienced, I know marijuana could be a great help to mankind, to people who are sick and suffering, if doctors were allowed to prescribe it."
        His experience concurred with a 1970s investigation supported in part by a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health, in which researchers found that "marihuana smoking in conjunction with routine doses of Phenobarbital and diphenylhydantoin was apparently necessary for controlling seizures . . ."  Zabloudil also learned that there never has been a documented case of death from marijuana overdose and that it was a relatively safety way for him to reduce his Phenobarbital use without compromising his health.
        "I found that I could sleep better at night, that I didn't have as many petit mal seizures, and that I was able to reduce my use of Phenobarbital by half," he said.
        Because of his reputation in the business community and the risks and expense associated with buying marijuana "on the street," Zabloudil decided to begin growing his own medicine, and in 1989, converted the attic above his studio into a small growing operation for his personal use.
        "It was like a miracle for me," Zabloudil said.
        His belief in the medical benefits of marijuana was underscored in 1993, when he dismantled his personal marijuana growing room after his studio was burglarized and marijuana was stolen from his attic pharmacy.  His petit mal seizures returned and he was forced again to rely on increased doses of Phenobarbital to control them.  After three months, he reconstructed the growing operation and again began using marijuana as medicine.  But on Nov. 15, 1995, police raided Zabloudil's studio, confiscated his plants and jailed him.
        "It happened at about 4 p.m.  Police cars surrounded my studio which is on the busiest street in Lincoln.  It was a humiliating experience to be taken out of my place of business in handcuffs at rush hour and to spend the night in jail, all for growing my own medicine," he explained.   After spending the night in jail and posting bond, Zabloudil was released, but for the next 27 months, the threat of a 60-year prison sentence loomed, and he began to understand how quickly one can become ostracized from friends and business associates.
        "I think this experience brought my family closer together, but many of the friends and people I've done business with just stopped calling and coming by the studio," he said.  "I'm not angry with them.   I understand their reasons: they're afraid of the stigma associated with a drug arrest, they don't understand that this was medicine I was growing to use for my epilepsy, and they didn't know what to say."
        Though the charges against Zabloudil have been dismissed, the stigma remains.
        "There've been a few people who've called to say they're glad the charges were dropped, and I really appreciate those people.   But nothing is the same as it was before the arrest," he said, adding that he has resumed taking high doses of Phenobarbital to control his seizures, and many of the side effects he feared have become a part of his daily life.
        "The memory loss is terrible.  It's embarrassing.  People come into the studio and they expect me to remember their names, and I can't.  I just can't.  I always was so good with names," he said, describing one of the known side effects of Phenobarbital.  "It's a shame that doctors in our state can't even prescribe the medicine that works best for me and has the fewest side effects.  I would hope that, in my lifetime, we become educated to the truth about the medical benefits of marijuana, and that doctors one day will be able to legally prescribe it for patients.  That concept is alien to a lot of people right now, but you always hope for things to get better."
        Attorney Ralph A. Smith of Louisville, Neb., who was one of more than half a dozen lawyers who assisted in Zabloudil's defense, said that while his client believes passionately in the medical benefits of marijuana, he is most concerned with restoring his reputation which was tarnished by the charges that Zabloudil said "made me sound like I was some kind of pot-smoking, gun-toting guy who sells drugs to children."
        "I'm a mild-mannered person, a family person.  I'm a grandfather," Zabloudil said.  His family and friends say the ordeal also has taken a toll on his physical health.
        "All of us who know Fran have watched him age and wither in pain during this long process," Smith said.  "We don't want to send the wrong message to people.  For some people, there are as many drawbacks to the use of marijuana as there are benefits to others.  The decision of whether marijuana should be used as medical treatment should be in the hands of trained medical doctors, like any other medical treatment.  That option is not available to doctors in Nebraska, nor in most of the country."
        Smith said polls show that an overwhelming majority of Americans believe it's time to lift the prohibition on the compassionate, medical use of marijuana, and Zabloudil said he hopes to live to see the day when that happens.
        "There is a pharmaceutical industry, a prison economy, a law enforcement economy, all dependent on the prohibition of marijuana," he said.  "And when someone discovers the medical benefits of using marijuana to treat his or her particular illness . . . here they are trying to put you in jail for using something that is really helpful.  That's very, very sad."
        "Fran has never been a danger to anyone, and it's insane for anyone to think he might be a threat simply because he was growing his own medicine," Smith said.
        Zabloudil still has hope of resurrecting his business and rebuilding his reputation after his legal ordeal, but he knows it will be difficult, and he works to maintain a positive attitude.
        "When I learned that the case was going to be dismissed, you can't imagine the relief.  A burden had been lifted," Zabloudil said.  "I remember when I was young, I wanted to be one of the greatest photographers in the state.  I'm still a great photographer, but this case has taken a lot away from me. I guess you can't expect to stay on top forever."


Copyright 1998, Issues Now

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