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.
Harris Will Give Biden ‘Honest’ Input On Legalizing Marijuana And Other Issues As Part Of ‘Deal’
Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris says she has a “deal” with Joe Biden to candidly share her perspective on a range of progressive policies he currently opposes, including legalizing marijuana. Separately, she also recently discussed cannabis reform in a private meeting with rapper Killer Mike.
During an interview on 60 Minutes that aired on Sunday, the senator was pressed on marijuana and numerous other issues where she and Biden disagree. In response, while she didn’t specifically commit to proactively advocating for comprehensive cannabis reform, she pledged in general that she would always share her views with the would-be president if the pair are elected next week.
“What I will do—and I promise you this and this is what Joe wants me to do, this was part of our deal—I will always share with him my lived experience as it relates to any issue that we confront,” she said after the interviewer listed cannabis legalization among a handful of issues on which she and Biden depart. “I promised Joe that I will give him that perspective and always be honest with him.”
If elected, would Kamala Harris advocate for Medicare for All, a plan Joe Biden doesn’t support?
— 60 Minutes (@60Minutes) October 26, 2020
Asked whether that perspective will be “socialist” and “progressive,” Harris laughed and said “no.”
“It is the perspective of a woman who grew up a black child in America, who was also a prosecutor, who also has a mother who arrived here at the age of 19 from India, who also, you know, likes hip hop,” she said.
The senator’s taste in music also came up during her own 2020 presidential bid, when she said in an interview that she listened to Snoop Dogg and Tupac while smoking marijuana during college despite graduating before those artists released their debut albums.
Music culture has played a key role in this election cycle, and one of the strongest voices for criminal justice reform in the industry is Killer Mike, who worked as a surrogate for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) when he was running for the Democratic presidential nomination. The artist said he met with Harris on Friday and the two discussed cannabis business opportunities for communities of color.
Just had a meeting with Sen. Harris.
My points *Dems Need to be heavy on the door Knox’N, HR40 tweek it better and have Biden Sign, Fed Trades Programs for worker class Americans so u can build, Black men exit prison and entrance to marijuana biz as a priority for biz and jobs
— Killer Mike (@KillerMike) October 23, 2020
As she’s done repeatedly since joining Biden’s campaign, Harris also reiterated at a rally in Pontiac, Michigan on Sunday that the administration would pursue marijuana decriminalization and expunging prior cannabis convictions.
She made similar comments during a campaign event in Atlanta last week, stating that the “war on drugs was, by every measure, a failure, and black men were hit the hardest.” That said, while the senator has come to embrace broad cannabis reform, she’s faced criticism over her past opposition to legalization and role in prosecuting people for marijuana offenses as a California prosecutor.
In another interview released last week, Harris said she and Biden “have a commitment to decriminalizing marijuana and expunging the records of people who have been convicted of marijuana offenses.”
“When you look at the awful war on drugs and the disproportionate impact it had on black men and creating then criminal records that have deprived people of access to jobs and housing and basic benefits,” she said.
There’s been some frustration among cannabis reform advocates that Harris has scaled back her reform push since joining the Democratic ticket as Biden’s running mate. During her own run for the presidential nomination, she called for comprehensive marijuana legalization but has in recent weeks focused her comments on the more modest reforms of decriminalization and expungement.
Harris, who is the lead Senate sponsor of a bill to federally deschedule marijuana, said last month that a Biden administration would not be “half-steppin’” cannabis reform or pursuing “incrementalism,” but that’s exactly how advocates would define simple decriminalization.
In any case, the senator has repeatedly discussed cannabis decriminalization on the trail. She similarly said during a vice presidential debate earlier this month that she and Biden “will decriminalize marijuana and we will expunge the records of those who have been convicted of marijuana.”
In addition to those policies, Biden backs modestly rescheduling the drug under federal law, letting states set their own policies and legalizing medical cannabis.
Photo element courtesy of California Attorney General’s Office.
GOP Tennessee Senator Calls For Medical Marijuana Legalization In New Campaign Ad
A Tennessee senator touted his support for legalizing medical marijuana in a campaign ad released on Friday.
In the 30-second spot, which has notably high production value for this kind of local race, state Sen. Steve Dickerson (R) talks about both the therapeutic benefits of cannabis and the consequences of broader marijuana criminalization.
“As your state senator, I’ve led the fight to legalize medical marijuana so our veterans and sickest Tennesseans can deal with chronic pain,” he said. “But this same life-saving plant has led to mass incarceration, with nonviolent marijuana possession resulting in lengthy prison sentences.”
It’s past time for Tennessee to legalize medical cannabis and give our sickest residents a smart, safe treatment to help with chronic pain. Legalization and securing criminal justice reform have been my top priorities, and I won’t stop fighting until we’ve changed the law. pic.twitter.com/28eFUy3loZ
— Steve Dickerson (@DickersonforS20) October 23, 2020
“I think that’s wrong. That’s why I’ve been pushing for criminal justice reform,” the senator added.
Dickerson, who sponsored a medical cannabis legalization bill that cleared a Senate committee in March, said in a Q&A published earlier this month that the policy change would be among his top three legislative priorities if he’s reelected.
His Democratic opponent, former Oak Hill Mayor Heidi Campbell, is in favor of “fully legalizing marijuana,” with her campaign site stating that cannabis crimes “disproportionately impact people of color and it’s time to end marijuana prohibition.”
But while Dickerson has earned a reputation as a moderate Republican given his positions on issues like cannabis reform, he’s faced backlash after declining to denounce an independent ad taken out on his behalf that some, including the LGBTQ rights organization Tennessee Equality Project (TEP), called racist.
The ad, which was paid for by Lt. Gov. Randy McNally’s (R) political action committee MCPAC, hits Campbell over her support for a nonprofit organization that is designed to keep young people out of prison, and it frames the group as “radical” and “extremist.” TEP rescinded their endorsement of Dickerson over his refusal to condemn the ad.
In the Tennessee legislature, marijuana reform has yet to pass—but there’s growing recognition that voters are in favor of the policy change. For example, former House Speaker Glen Casada (R) released the results of a constituent survey last year that showed 73 percent of those in his district back medical cannabis legalization.
Another former GOP House speaker, Beth Harwell, highlighted her support for the reform proposal during her unsuccessful bid for governor in 2018, and she referenced President Trump’s stated support for medical marijuana on the campaign trail.
In other Tennessee drug policy politics, a lawmaker in June blocked a resolution to honor murdered teen Ashanti Posey because she was allegedly involved in a low-level cannabis sale the day she was killed.
Photo courtesy of Philip Steffan.
South Dakota Voters Back Marijuana Legalization And Medical Cannabis Ballot Measures, Poll Finds
Voters in South Dakota are poised to approve two separate ballot measures next month that would legalize marijuana and allow patients to access medical cannabis.
The initiative to allow adults to possess, grow and purchase marijuana leads among likely voters by a margin of 51 percent to 44 percent, with five percent undecided, according to the survey released over the weekend by Argus Leader Media and KELO-TV.
The medical cannabis item got 74 percent support in the poll, with 23 percent in opposition and 3 percent undecided.
When it comes to recreational legalization, voters are divided on the issue across demographic lines. Fifty-seven percent of those under age 50 back the ballot measure, while it is narrowly opposed by older voters. Seventy-three percent of Democrats and 58 percent of independents support the reform, but Republicans are against it, 61 percent to 34 percent. Men are on board, 56 percent to 40 percent, but women are divided with 47 percent in support and 47 percent opposed.
The separate medical cannabis ballot measure, on the other hand, enjoys supermajority backing among every surveyed group. In fact, it had a greater margin of support than any other item or entity in the entire poll, which also asked voters about the presidential election, other races on the ballot and approval of officials including the governor and U.S. vice president.
A separate survey released last month by marijuana opponents found that about 60 percent of South Dakota voters support the broader recreational legalization proposal and more than 70 percent back the narrower medical cannabis initiative.
Under the adult-use constitutional amendment, people 21 and older could possess and distribute up to one ounce of marijuana, and they would also be allowed to cultivate up to three cannabis plants.
The separate medical cannabis legalization measure that voters will decide on would make a statutory change to allow patients suffering from debilitating medical conditions to possess and purchase up to three ounces of marijuana from a licensed dispensary.
Gov. Kristi Noem (R), who previously vetoed a hemp bill, appeared in a new ad this month urging voters to reject the cannabis legalization ballot measure, saying, “I’ve never met someone who got smarter from smoking pot.”
Meanwhile, the pro-legalization campaign released its own spot featuring a retired police officer who says “our harsh marijuana laws aren’t working.”
“In 2018, 4,000 people were arrested for marijuana possession in South Dakota. That’s one in 10 arrests,” the former officer said in the TV advertisement, referencing a report that South Dakotans for Better Marijuana Laws published last month. “Each arrest costs $4,000. It doesn’t make us any safer. We’re wasting law enforcement time and resources that should be fighting serious crimes. So I’m voting ‘yes’ on A and 26.”
The data from that report also shows that—as is the case across the country—marijuana enforcement has had a disparate impact on people of color, despite comparable rates of consumption among white people.