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.
Andrew Yang Peddles Marijuana-Themed Presidential Campaign Merchandise
2020 candidate Andrew Yang announced on Saturday that his campaign for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination is rolling out a line of marijuana-themed merch.
The limited edition products blend Yang’s love of mathematics with his support for cannabis reform. A t-shirt being offered for $30 simply says, “Math. Money. Marijuana.” And a now-sold-out baseball cap says “Math” on the front and displays a cannabis leaf on back. There’s also a bumper sticker that says, “Legalize Marijuana.”
(Marijuana Moment’s editor provides some content to Forbes via a temporary exclusive publishing license arrangement.)
Buttigieg Pledges To Decriminalize Possession Of All Drugs In First Term As President
South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg released a comprehensive plan on Friday that calls for “decriminalizing all drug possession” in his first presidential term as a means to combat the opioid epidemic and treat addiction as a public health, rather than criminal justice, issue.
Decriminalization is just one action the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate said he’d pursue in order to reform the country’s mental health care system and bolster substance abuse treatment. His plan also includes proposals to reduce sentences for drug offenses other than possession, increase access to the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone and make it easier to implement syringe exchange programs.
America’s addiction and mental health care crisis has been building for decades—due to decades of neglect by political leaders in Washington. Today, I’m proposing a new approach that tackles this crisis with the urgency and care it deserves. pic.twitter.com/U8F9DXJPC2
— Pete Buttigieg (@PeteButtigieg) August 23, 2019
Buttigieg’s “Healing and Belonging in America” plan emphasizes the need to divert people suffering from addiction away from prisons and into treatment. He said he’d accomplish that by expanding diversionary programs and evidence-based training “for drug courts, mental health courts, and other alternatives to incarceration for justice-involved persons.”
The goal of decriminalization and diversion is to reduce “the number of people incarcerated due to mental illness or substance use by 75 percent in the first term.”
Our country is in the midst of a mental health and addiction crisis, worsened by decades of stigma and political neglect. I’ll bring a new approach, rooted in commitment and community, to tackle this crisis with the urgency it deserves. https://t.co/spBoh5KH4X
— Pete Buttigieg (@PeteButtigieg) August 23, 2019
Under his plan, sentencing reform for drug offenses other than possession would be applied retroactively and coupled with expungements for past convictions. Buttigieg pointed to research demonstrating that “incarceration for drug offenses has no effect on drug misuse, drug arrests, or overdose deaths” and instead “actually increases the rate of overdose deaths.”
“We cannot incarcerate ourselves out of this public health problem.”
“To ensure that people with a mental illness or substance use disorder can heal, we will decriminalize these conditions,” the proposal states. “When someone is undergoing a crisis or is caught using a drug, they should be treated by a health professional rather than punished in a jail cell.”
“All presidential candidates should join Pete Buttigieg in recognizing that the criminalization of people for their drug use is wrong and simply bad policy,” Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, executive director of the Drug Policy Action, said in a press release. “Possession of drugs for personal use is the single most arrested offense in the United States, eclipsing arrest rates for any other offense. With overdose numbers skyrocketing and entire communities, disproportionately black or brown, suffering from criminalization, it’s time for policymakers to shift gears. Taking an evidence-based, health-centered approach to address this crisis is not only true leadership – it’s common sense.”
The mayor also made harm reduction policies a key component of his strategy. He said take-home naloxone programs would be expanded to all 50 states by 2024 and that harm reduction services would be expanded “to reduce overdose deaths and the spread of infectious diseases related to needle sharing.”
The plan would make naloxone “broadly available in order to reverse overdoses” and remove “legislative and regulatory restrictions on the use of federal funds for syringe service programs.”
Buttigieg said the federal government should provide funding for state and local health departments to purchase the medication, make sure that it’s “available in public spaces and workplaces” similar to first aid kids and encourage “co-prescribing of naloxone with opioids, either by individual physicians or direct dispensing by pharmacists.”
Existing federal law makes it difficult to establish syringe exchange programs, in part because federal funds can’t be used to buy needles. The restrictions “hamper state and local responses, both because they limit resources and because they convey a negative message about the value of these programs, despite overwhelming scientific evidence that they can prevent transmission of HIV and hepatitis.”
In addition to lifting those barriers, the candidate said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “would also work with states to remove any criminal liability for those participating in” syringe exchange programs.
“Harm reduction programs are a critical part of any effective response to the opioid and injection drug use crisis. They minimize the negative impact of drug use without encouraging it, while reducing other side effects of drug use. In particular, this means access to syringe service programs for people who inject drugs, that link them to treatment, and provides access to sterile syringes. These programs help prevent transmission of HIV, viral hepatitis, and other infectious diseases associated with needle sharing, and reduce overdoses by deploying medication such as naloxone that help reverse the effects of opioids.”
One harm reduction policy that didn’t make the cut in Buttigieg’s plan is safe injection sites, where people could use illicit drugs under the supervision of medical professionals who could reverse overdoses and recommend treatment options. Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who are also running for the Democratic nomination, both proposed legalizing such facilities as part of criminal justice reform plans they released this month.
“Decades of failed mental health and addiction policy, coupled with mass incarceration that criminalized mental illness and drug use, have left us with a mental health and addiction care system so broken that today there are more people with serious mental illness in prisons than in treatment facilities,” Buttigieg said.
The candidate also made ending incarceration for drug possession—as well as legalizing marijuana—central principles of his previously released criminal justice reform plan, which he released last month.
But while the prior plan did not explicitly describe the move as “decriminalizing” drugs, even though advocates commonly use that word to refer to policies that remove the threat of being imprisoned for possession, the new document does use that terminology—signaling a shift in clarity as Buttigieg continues to develop his campaign messaging.
In other instances, he borrowed language from his criminal justice reform plan, specifically as it concerns how criminalizing drug use can increase rates of overdose, for his mental health proposal.
“Despite equal rates of use, Black Americans are nearly four times as likely to be arrested for using marijuana,” the criminal justice plan states. “Research shows that incarceration for drug offenses has no effect on drug misuse, drug arrests, or overdose deaths. In fact, some studies show that incarceration actually increases the rate of overdose deaths.”
Buttigieg mentioned that, as with drug offenses, black people are also more likely to die from overdoses. And that’s due to “the current broken system that criminalizes mental illness and addiction” that was “built during the crack epidemic of the 1980s.”
This story was updated to include comment from the Drug Policy Action.
Photo courtesy of Flickr/Gage Skidmore.
White House Drug Officials Say Legal Marijuana Is Up To States
Two top federal drug officials, including the White House drug czar, recently said that marijuana legalization should be left up to states.
The comments stand out coming from the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), which has historically played a central role in defending blanket federal prohibition.
Jim Carroll, the Trump-appointed drug czar who directs the administration’s drug policies, told Fox 59 reporter Kayla Sullivan that he considers legalization a states’ right issue. He added that he’d like to see targeted education campaigns concerning cannabis use during pregnancy and underage usage as well as research into impaired driving.
Got the answer: He believes it should be left up to the state. However, he does want to educate people on the effect marijuana has on young brain development, pregnant women and wants to come up with better guidance & testing for marijuana while driving. https://t.co/eifryNJB1j
— Kayla Sullivan (@KaylaReporting) August 14, 2019
It’s a particularly notable position given that federal law stipulates that the drug czar is required to “take such actions as necessary to oppose any attempt to legalize the use of a substance” listed as Schedule I under the Controlled Substances Act, including marijuana.
Even if Carroll’s remarks arguably don’t directly violate that statute, they are significant in that he doesn’t seem to have taken the opportunity to proactively oppose state legalization efforts when asked by a reporter.
Anne Hazlett, senior advisor at ONDCP, also weighed in on cannabis legalization on Wednesday, telling CentralIllinoisProud.com that marijuana legalization is “a state decision.”
“Marijuana is an ongoing challenge that is being addressed in many of our states,” she said. “This is a state decision, and we would like to see additional research done so that these decisions being made at a state level are being made in a manor that is fully informed.”
Though the comments from Carroll and Hazlett seem to reflect an evolving understanding of the federal government’s role in imposing prohibition on the states, the ONDCP director has previously made clear he’s not enthusiastic about the burgeoning legal market.
During a House Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing in May, Carroll raised concerns about THC potency in marijuana products, saying “the marijuana we have today is nothing like what it was when I was a kid, when I was in high school.”
“Back then the THC, the ingredient in marijuana that makes you high, was in the teens in terms of the percentage,” he said. “Now what we’re seeing is twice that, three times that, in the plant.”
He also said that more research is needed and that the Drug Enforcement Administration as well as the Department of Health and Human Services are “working hard to make sure that we understand the impact of legalization of marijuana on the body.”
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.