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Gaetz Pushes Federal Medical Marijuana Reform, Readies Research Bill

Office of U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz

As a member of the Florida legislature, Matt Gaetz was instrumental in the legalization of medical marijuana in the state.

Now, Congressman Gaetz is leading the charge for federal reform, trying to come up with legislation that his constituents and colleagues can support.

Just months after his election to the U.S. House of Representatives, Gaetz got down to business on medical marijuana reform, introducing H.R. 2020, which provides for the reclassification of marijuana to a schedule III drug. Gaetz believes the change would be a good first step toward nationwide legalization of doctor-prescribed cannabis. He cited a poll showing that such a move has the support of 93 percent of Americans.

“But, despite this widespread public support, marijuana remains classified as a schedule 1 drug the same as LSD or heroine,” Gaetz said. “This harms low-income communities each year. It turns thousands of citizens into felons and it punishes people who are sick and looking for medical help.”

Gaetz introduced H.R. 2020 in the House in April 2017.  So far, it remains stuck in committee.

In the past few months, Gaetz has put his efforts into expanding medical marijuana research. In October, he proposed such legislation as an amendment to a law enforcement bill, but dropped that approach in favor a stand-alone measure. He’s now preparing to introduce the Medical Marijuana Research Act of 2018.

At recent roundtable discussions in the Pensacola area, Gaetz laid out the main provisions of the bill.

“End the gag rule at the VA, so there can be honest consult,” said Gaetz.

As it stands now, doctors at the Department of Veterans Affairs cannot tell veterans seeking alternative treatment about federally approved medical marijuana clinical trials.

Secondly, the bill would create more entitles producing medical grade, research grade cannabis.

Currently, the University of Mississippi is the only entity in the U.S. authorized to manufacture medical marijuana. The bill would end that monopoly and mandate approval of no less than three sanctioned producers.

“Finally, to allow entities that want to do research, a safe harbor, so that their other federal grants aren’t impaired,” continued Gaetz referencing the University of Florida’s rejection of medical marijuana research, because it would jeopardize $150 million of other federal research grants.

Credit Sandra Averhart / WUWF Public Media
WUWF Public Media
Area veterans joined Rep. Matt Gaetz for a roundtable discussion on medical marijuana reform.

In a frank discussion of the issue, veterans and their spouses told Gaetz about their need for medical marijuana for PTSD and other conditions and their obstacles to getting it, especially at the VA, since it remains illegal at the federal level.

On that issue, Army veteran Michael Tabb suggested a unique work around.

“You set aside the legality of it within the confines of the VA,” he said. “You start with us.”  

Tabb, a recovering alcoholic, says Gaetz should take a look at in-patient, drug treatment programs such as one was in at the VA Medical Center in Biloxi. He believes it would provide perfect setting for the VA to issue medical marijuana as part of its own clinical trials.

“Let’s use this time that we have these vets, and there’s no shortage of vets waiting to get into these programs,” said Tabb, noting that he waited a month to get into the program. “There’s no shortage of vets, you got (them) sober, you got (them) clean, you got (them) where you want (them). Introduce cannabis in a very controlled setting. I don’t care if it’s whole plant, CBD (oil), THC, whatever.”

Navy veteran Mark Clark says he, too, is open to medical marijuana as an alternative to help treat his migraines.

“You’re not (going to) get any of this taken care of until you do the number one thing,” noting one huge hurdle to medical marijuana reform. “The pharmaceutical people are involved in this so deep, they’re in so deep that they’re not (going to) give this up, so you can have something that takes money from them.”

Another hurdle to medical marijuana reform is the belief that legalizing medical marijuana will lead to full-on legalization of a substance viewed by some as a ‘gateway’ drug.

But, Navy veteran Nancy Prevot, in describing her veteran husband’s losing battle with cancer, said it’s worth the risk.

“It helped him. Cannabis helped him,” Prevot said. “You know, he had the pain. He couldn’t eat. It hurt him to walk. It gave him those little bits of hope at the end of his life.”

Although the medical marijuana research bill doesn’t directly increase access, the congressman is being encouraged to pursue it concurrently with the proposed rescheduling of the drug, and other aspects of reform.

Gaetz pledged to keep working. However, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has advocated a federal crackdown on marijuana use in general. And, Gaetz admits that trying to gain the support of his conservative colleagues in the House is an uphill battle.

“See I’m talking a lot at my fellow Republicans, frankly, and, typically, it’s the ones that are 50 and over,” said Gaetz. “What they’ve said to me is that they’re just not willing to go there yet. I’m doing my best to persuade them.”

Credit Office of U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte
Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) is Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

One positive is that Gaetz is getting support for a specific research bill from fellow Republican members of the House Judiciary Committee, including committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, from Virginia, as he indicated during a meeting last fall.

“I believe that the committee should take steps to enable the research into the benefits that research might uncover for the chemicals that are contained in cannabis,” said Goodlatte.

Although helping to draft the legislation, there’s no guarantee that he will support its passage.

Regardless, many believe medical marijuana reform simply won’t happen until there’s a change in perception. If there is an awareness effort, Gaetz already may be well positioned to lead it.

“Your face is really recognizable all the time on Fox News, always grandstanding,” Mark Clark told Gaetz to the amusement of others at the roundtable. “Put your case on TV.”

“That’s a great point,” Gaetz agreed. He acknowledged his growing media presence in relation to the Russia investigation and mocking how a future TV news interview might go, “Well, it’s great to be on tonight to talk about Bob Mueller, but before doing that…”

On a serious note, Gaetz says it might help that he speaks to President Trump on a regular basis and has discussed the issue of medical marijuana with the president. 

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.