Rep. Matt Gaetz has been in Congress for less than a year, but the Florida Republican has already become one of the House’s foremost leaders working to reform federal marijuana policies. From pushing to protect state laws to advocating marijuana’s reclassification to pressuring the Justice Department on expanding studies into the drug’s medical benefits, Gaetz is pursuing cannabis reform on multiple fronts.
Just one problem: GOP leadership doesn’t seem especially interested in giving the issue a fair shake.
This year, Congressional Republicans have blocked numerous cannabis amendments from even being voted on, including ones to shield state laws from federal interference, to remove research roadblocks and even to allow military veterans increased access to medical marijuana.
Gaetz, who has been a sponsor or cosponsor of several of those measures, wants to turn up pressure on House leadership to get out of the way, and he thinks that advocacy effort could get a serious boost from none other than Donald Trump.
“We need presidential leadership,” Gaetz said in a phone interview on Tuesday. “President Trump made a commitment during the campaign to support medical marijuana, and we need the president to continue to be a force for good on this issue.”
Support for cannabis law reform is largely generational rather than partisan, the 35-year-old congressman argues.
“Many millennials voted for the president because they believed he was a new type of Republican on the marijuana issue,” he says. “The most dispositive factor in determining whether or not someone is likely to support cannabis reform is their age, not their party affiliation. It’s hard to find Republicans under the age of 40 that oppose medical marijuana research.”
Trump, 71, repeatedly pledged during the presidential election that he would respect state marijuana laws, going so far as to say he personally knows people who benefit from medical cannabis. But administration officials such as U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a longtime staunch legalization opponent, have sent concerning and at times conflicting signals about federal enforcement policy.
For now, it remains to be seen to what extent the president himself will step into the debate about marijuana, but Gaetz is continuing to press his fellow Republicans in Congress on the issue, with some signs of success.
In a hearing this month he got House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) to pledge on the record to work to make marijuana research easier.
Scientists have long complained that cannabis’s current status under Schedule I — a category that’s supposed to be reserved for substances with no medical benefits — creates unnecessary hurdles that don’t exist for studies on other drugs.
“Chairman Goodlatte has made a commitment that we will liberalize access to medical marijuana for research purposes in universities and in medical facilities,” Gaetz says. “It’s my view that that cannot occur in a world in which the federal government takes the position that cannabis has no medical value. So in my mind, Chairman Goodlatte has committed to remove cannabis from the list of Schedule I drugs.”
Goodlatte’s commitment came during a debate on an amendment that Gaetz filed which would have forced Sessions to study the benefits of medical marijuana for police officers. He ended up withdrawing the proposal and not forcing a vote per Goodlatte’s request and in service of pursuing broader opportunities to expand research in partnership with the chairman.
It was the second time in recent months that Gaetz pulled a marijuana amendment from consideration in the committee, and he was visibly frustrated during the hearing that Goodlatte’s staff hadn’t yet followed through on their boss’s prior commitment to work on cannabis legislation the first time he forced a committee debate on the issue this summer.
“That frustration continues to grow because as I sit here two weeks from that commitment, the Judiciary staff hasn’t produced the first word of legislative text to fulfill the chairman’s commitment,” Gaetz says of the most recent hearing.
Beyond the committee, the Florida Republican has taken the fight for marijuana reform to the floor, for example delivering a passionate speech earlier this month about how medical cannabis can help people with breast cancer.
Gaetz, who is the only GOP member of Congress to have previously authored a state medical marijuana law, says he gets his passion for working on the issue from families who are directly impacted.
As a member of Florida’s House of Representatives he introduced and successfully fought to enact a limited program that allows certain patients to access medicines derived from cannabidiol, a component of marijuana.
“In Florida I’ve made promises to families enduring very complicated medical situations that I would fight for them, and I don’t feel relieved of that commitment just because I’ve been elected to Congress,” Gaetz says. “Much of the work I’ve done in Florida to liberalize access to medical cannabis will be for naught if we don’t create broader research opportunities and a clinical environment in which cannabis treatments can be administered When you work together with families on legislation that’s helped them, helped their children, helped their parents and grandparents, you create bonds with people. And those bonds are enduring.”
Last November, Florida voters went a step further by enacting a comprehensive program that will allow patients to have access to a broader array of medical marijuana products. And polls in the state now show that majority support exists for even broader legalization of marijuana for recreational purposes, but Gaetz isn’t there yet.
“That’s not my role in the movement,” he says. “My role in the movement is to focus on medical access, research and the improvement of healthcare outcomes. I think that my efforts are best focused on those issues.”
When asked if he would support a legalization proposal as a voter if it appeared on the state’s ballot, he demurred, saying that “there are so many alternate causalities I would have to consider regarding, particularly, adolescent access.”
But when it comes to medical cannabis, Gaetz is a proud champion and wants to use his own experience as an example for other members of Congress who still think the issue is a political liability.
“Too many Republicans hear that support for cannabis reform creates primary vulnerability. I’m the best example of why that isn’t true,” he says. “I’m in a district that’s blood red. And in my primary election, a very substantial amount of money was spent litigating the cannabis reform issue against me and I leaned into it and I won overwhelmingly.”
“And so I want to use my own political experience as a source of comfort to other members in deep red districts. The day has long lapsed when anyone is going to lose an election anywhere in America among any segment of the electorate because they support medical marijuana. But bridging the perception and the reality on that political question is a really important step to move cannabis reform.”
And Gaetz is very optimistic about medical marijuana’s future.
“It is not a matter of if but when medical cannabis readily accessible to every American,” he says. “My hope is that we set up a truly clinical paradigm to give people confidence in the medicine they take. Right now, the barriers to research really limit our ability to have the best healthcare outcomes. That’s ludicrous.”
Photo courtesy of Congressman Matt Gaetz’s office.
Feds Send Warning Letter To Another CBD Company Over Medical Claims
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Federal Trade Commission (FTC) sent a warning letter to a Florida-based CBD company on Tuesday, alleging that the business made several unsanctioned claims about the therapeutic benefits of their products.
The federal agencies accused Rooted Apothecary of unlawfully asserting that their cannabidiol products could treat symptoms of conditions such as ADHD, Parkinson’s disease, ear aches, ADHD and autism. Those claims appeared on the company’s website and social media accounts, they said.
Certain products appeared to be marketed as dietary supplements, which FDA currently prohibits as it works to develop an alternative regulatory scheme for CBD.
“Cannabis and cannabis-derived compounds are subject to the same laws and requirements as FDA-regulated products that contain any other substance,” Acting FDA Commissioner Ned Sharpless said in a press release. “We are working to protect Americans from companies marketing products with unsubstantiated claims that they prevent, diagnose, treat, or cure a number of diseases or conditions.”
FDA and FTC have issued a joint warning letter to a company marketing unapproved cannabidiol products with unsubstantiated claims to treat teething and ear pain in infants, autism, ADHD, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease, among other conditions/diseases. https://t.co/tsn4SBiGzH pic.twitter.com/sG3wyURMDS
— Dr. Ned Sharpless (@FDACommissioner) October 22, 2019
We’ve sent numerous warning letters that focus on matters of significant public health concern to CBD companies, and these actions should send a message to the broader market about complying with FDA requirements.
— Dr. Ned Sharpless (@FDACommissioner) October 22, 2019
“We’ve sent numerous warning letters that focus on matters of significant public health concern to CBD companies, and these actions should send a message to the broader market about complying with FDA requirements,” he said. “As we examine potential regulatory pathways for the lawful marketing of cannabis products, protecting and promoting public health through sound, science-based decision-making remains our top priority.”
FTC’s complaint with the company is that it violated a law that requires businesses that advertise medical claims about their products to have “competent and reliable scientific evidence” to back them up, which could include human clinical trials. Making or exaggerating such claims through “a product name, website name, metatags, or other means” without proper evidence is also prohibited.
FTC and @US_FDA warn Florida company marketing CBD products about claims related to treating autism, ADHD, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and other medical conditions: https://t.co/cAbxPPcxk8 pic.twitter.com/GdlttyBgxv
— FTC (@FTC) October 22, 2019
Rooted Apothecary must respond to the agencies within 15 working days to explain what steps it’s taking to resolve the issues. If the company fails to do so, it is subject to legal action, including the possible seizure of its products or an injunction. It may also have to compensate customers.
FDA emphasized that CBD products—other than the prescription medication Epidiolex, for the treatment of intractable epilepsy—are not currently allowed. But it also reiterated that the agency is in the process of developing rules that could allow for the lawful marketing of the compound.
In April, FDA sent warning letters to three other CBD companies that it said was making unauthorized claims about the medical benefits of their products. FTC also submitted warning letters to three separate CBD companies for allegedly advertising misleading statements about their products last month.
These letters are examples of the agency’s use of enforcement discretion. Former FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, who recently suggested that the federal government should be involved in regulating state marijuana programs, clarified in March that the agency is only going after companies that make especially misleading claims about their products.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who championed a provision of the 2018 Farm Bill federally legalizing hemp and its derivatives, has urged FDA to clear a path for the lawful marketing of CBD products by using enforcement discretion while it develops an interim final rule. A bipartisan group of lawmakers made a similar request in a letter sent to the agency last month.
“The FDA is working quickly to further clarify our regulatory approach for products containing cannabis and cannabis-derived compounds like CBD while using all available resources to monitor the marketplace and protect public health by taking action as needed against companies,” FDA Principal Deputy Commissioner Amy Abernethy said.
FDA’s working quickly to further clarify our regulatory approach for products with cannabis/cannabis-derivatives like CBD while using all available resources to monitor the marketplace & protect public health by taking action as needed against companies. https://t.co/HB9IhG2qud
— Dr. Amy Abernethy (@DrAbernethyFDA) October 22, 2019
We are committed to advancing our regulation of these products through an approach that, in line with our mission, prioritizes public health, fosters innovation and promotes consumer confidence. We plan to provide an update on our progress in this area in the near future.
— Dr. Amy Abernethy (@DrAbernethyFDA) October 22, 2019
“We recognize that there is significant public interest in cannabis and cannabis-derived compounds; however, we must work together to fill in the knowledge gaps about the science, safety and quality of many of these products,” she said. “We are committed to advancing our regulation of these products through an approach that, in line with our mission, prioritizes public health, fosters innovation and promotes consumer confidence.”
Photo courtesy of Kimzy Nanney.
GOP Senator Links Medical Marijuana Claims To Tobacco Industry Advertisements
Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) said on Tuesday that claims about the therapeutic potential of marijuana remind him of decades-old tobacco industry advertisements asserting that the product had medical benefits.
In a speech on the Senate floor, Cornyn discussed a hearing that the International Narcotics Control Caucus, which he co-chairs, will hold on Wednesday to explore the public health impacts of cannabis. He said it was especially important to hear from experts about the subject as more states legalize marijuana and members of Congress, as well as Democratic presidential candidates, push to end federal prohibition.
Senate Hearing To Focus On Marijuana And Health This Week – https://t.co/aPZczm3X75
— Senator John Cornyn (@JohnCornyn) October 21, 2019
The senator made clear he’s skeptical about marijuana’s health benefits.
“There’s no shortage of people who claim that marijuana has endless health benefits and can help patients struggling from everything from epilepsy to anxiety to cancer treatments,” he said. “This reminds me of some of the advertising we saw from the tobacco industry years ago where they actually claimed public health benefits from smoking tobacco, which we know as a matter of fact were false and that tobacco contains nicotine, an addictive drug, and is implicated with cancers of different kinds.”
“We’re hearing a lot of the same happy talk with regard to marijuana and none of the facts that we need to understand about the public health impact of marijuana use,” he said.
While Cornyn recognized there’s significant support for cannabis reform, he said that ” for the number of voices in support of legalization, there are even more unanswered questions about both the short- and long-term public health effects.”
He expressed concern about increased levels of THC concentration in cannabis products and stated that it’s “true that for some people that marijuana can indeed be addictive.”
“There’s simply a lack of scientific evidence to determine the link between marijuana and various health risks, and that’s something I would think Congress and the American people would want to know before we proceed further down this path,” Cornyn said. “We don’t know enough about how this could impair cognitive function or capacity or increase the risk of mental illness or perhaps serve as a gateway for other drugs that are even more damaging to the health of a young person.”
The senator made similar remarks during a conversation with a former White House drug czar in August. He said it was important to address the public health impacts of cannabis before moving forward with legislation that would protect banks that service marijuana businesses from being penalized by federal regulators.
“With increasing use and a growing number of states giving the green light for marijuana use, we need better answers,” he said.
The surgeon general and the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, along with several academics, are scheduled to testify at Wednesday’s hearing.
Photo courtesy of C-SPAN.
Michael J. Fox Parkinson’s Foundation Urges Congress To Pass Three Marijuana Research Bills
A leading advocacy group that’s dedicated to finding treatment options for Parkinson’s disease is backing three pieces of marijuana research legislation in Congress.
The Michael J. Fox Foundation (MJFF)—named after the actor, who has Parkinson’s and established the nonprofit—said last week that lifting barriers to cannabis research, including rescheduling the plant under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), is necessary to promote studies verifying marijuana’s potential therapeutic benefit for conditions such as Parkinson’s patients.
“The MJFF supports increased access to cannabis for medical research. Congress has begun to recognize this need, and there are several bills in the U.S. House and Senate designed to remove barriers that impede safe and legal access to cannabis by medical researchers,” the foundation said on its website. “The MJFF public policy team is tracking these bills and working to educate members of Congress and their staff on their importance to the Parkinson’s community.”
MJFF said it’s in favor of three marijuana bills, which would accomplish the following:
—Require the Justice Department to approve additional manufacturers for research-grade cannabis.
—Protect research institutions that conduct studies on marijuana.
—Authorize the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) to inform patients about opportunities to participate in federally authorized cannabis studies.
—Require VA to conduct studies into the therapeutic potential of marijuana in the treatment of various conditions that commonly afflict veterans such as chronic pain and post-traumatic stress disorder.
—Reschedule marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule III under the CSA.
—Free up universities to conduct studies on cannabis by removing certain regulatory requirements.
In a letter to the Senate sponsor of that last piece of legislation, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), in June, the foundation stated that marijuana’s current classification under federal law and the inadequate quality of cannabis grown at the only federally authorized manufacturing facility has meant that “researchers do not have the proper materials to conduct the necessary research.”
The foundation noted that it has submitted comments to the Food and Drug Administration arguing in favor of rescheduling in 2018 and 2019. It also applauded the Drug Enforcement Administration for announcing that it would take steps to approve additional federal cannabis farms for research.
“Current policies hinder comprehensive medical research on cannabis, making it difficult to generate the evidence needed for clear recommendations,” Andrew Koemeter-Cox, MJFF’s associate director of research programs, said. “This is especially problematic when some products may be unsafe for human use and have the potential for adverse interactions with other medications.”
Ted Thompson, the nonprofit’s senior vice president of public policy, said that removing barriers to research “is one way in which Congress can help scientific researchers determine what the benefits of medical cannabis might be for Parkinson’s disease.”
“Our role on the public policy team is to work with Congress and the administration to ensure there is access and funding for research and care initiatives that can benefit people living with Parkinson’s and, right now, that includes access to medical cannabis for research,” he said.
Photo courtesy of Brian Shamblen.