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A Conversation with Rep. Matt Gaetz About Marijuana

by Jeremy Morrison

Just before leaving Washington D.C. for a the congressional recess, freshman lawmaker Rep. Matt Gaetz, (R-Fla.), introduced a proposal to reschedule marijuana, effectively loosening the laws surrounding the substance. A few days later, sitting in his Pensacola district office, the congressman sat down for a discussion about the move.

Gaetz explained the rationale behind his bill — introduced with fellow congressman from Orlando, Rep. Darren Soto, (D-Fla.) — and also discussed his views on the evolving nature of marijuana laws around the country. He suggested the federal government needs to “pull its head out of the sand” and argued that the issue should transcend partisan ranks.

Gaetz’s proposed bill — which would move marijuana from a Schedule I to and Schedule III within the Controlled Substances Act, making research and medical access easier, as well as reducing legal consequences — is introduced in the context of a growing number of states legalizing medical, or in some cases outright recreational, marijuana. It is joined by another proposal, the so-called Path to Marijuana Reform, a suite of bills addressing everything from taxation and banking, to decriminalization and research.

The following interview with Rep. Gaetz was conducted April 10.

SANDS: So, you introduced this bill, rescheduling marijuana, why did you do that?

REP. MATT GAETZ: Right now it is functionally illegal to research a substance that is being prescribed as medicine in nearly 30 states. That’s the height of stupidity. We shouldn’t be afraid of research. And to classify marijuana with heroin and LSD continues a generational sequence of lying by the federal government to the American people.

SANDS: So, that sounds, you know, just to my ears, odd coming from a — you know, the conservative side of the aisle. You hear this a lot from the left side of the aisle, you’ve been hearing the rescheduling argument or decriminalization — what makes you come out on this?

GAETZ: Well, hey, look, when I met a little girl in my district who was seizing to death —

SANDS: Is this in Gulf Breeze?

GAETZ: Yeah. You know, I wasn’t a Republican or a Democrat or an Independent, I was a human being. And I’m proud to have sponsored and passed two bills in Florida to create access to medical cannabis for those truly in need. But the federal government doesn’t pull its head out of the sand it’ll all be for naught, because we won’t be able to research the impacts of cannabis on vulnerable patients.

SANDS: How does this bill jive with the Path to Marijuana Reform, that was also introduced?

GAETZ: You know, when it comes to cannabis reform, I’m an incrementalist, because I’ve seen that work. You’ve got a lot of folks who would like to fully, recreationally legalize marijuana. You’ve got other folks who would like to have it medically available if you’ve got a hangnail. And others are just reflexively opposed to any change in cannabis policy. So, governing from the extremes on cannabis hasn’t really done much for sick people. So, my strategy was to find an unassailable position and present it for consideration. Who’s against research? Does anyone really think —

SANDS: Jeff Sessions?

GAETZ: Well, I mean, you know, that is a — that is an antiquated view that flies in the face of science and just common sense. People are using medical cannabis. Don’t we want to know whether or not it’s working?
You know, the other thing is banking. That’s the other big feature of going from Schedule I to Schedule III. Does anyone really think that it’s a good idea to have marijuana businesses operating exclusively in cash? There’s no logical argument for that.

SANDS: What are your views on recreational?

GAETZ: You know, look, cannabis reform is a journey and I’m only interested in, you know, one step at a time.

SANDS: And what are your thoughts on — you know, Jeff Sessions has come out and made some comments along the lines of he wants to reassess the whole, you know, evolution that the country has, the track its been on, insofar as this is concerned.

GAETZ: You know, I supported Jeff Sessions for attorney general, I think he’s going to make a great attorney general. We obviously disagree on this issue. You know, I want to learn more, not less. And if there’s really no credible argument for cannabis as medicine, I wonder why the federal government went and got a patent on it?

SANDS: And, in your statement you mentioned, you know, the effects that this had on people, that laws have on people, criminal records and so forth.

GAETZ: Yeah.

SANDS: Can you speak a minute about that?

GAETZ: Sure, you know — the federal government has lied to the American people for a generation about cannabis. And those lies have resulted in overly punitive criminal penalties. And the impacts on minority communities have been the most damaging. Do we really want to go lock up, you know, a 19-year-old who, you know, gets pulled — or who, you know, is in position of three joints. I think there’s probably better ways to handle substance abuse. But we’ll never get there if we can’t have an adult conversation about research.

SANDS: And what about — let’s say that this proposal gets taken up and — what about all the 19-year-olds that have been pulled over with three joints and sit in jail right now?

GAETZ: I stopped myself before I said pulled over, because driving is a different issue, but yeah, I mean, — our policies on marijuana for the last generation have done irreparable harm. We can’t undo the past, but we can chart a better course for the future if we’re simply willing to avail ourselves to the benefits of modern research.

SANDS: What’s the reaction been from your colleagues? Both on the right and the left?

GAETZ: It’s interesting. Too many Republicans have reflexive opposition to any cannabis reform. That’s not good for the country and it’s really not good for the Republican party. And so I’ve got some strong headwinds. Many Democrats don’t want to reschedule cannabis, they just want to legalize it. So, I’m aiming for the ideological center of this issue. And I’m hopeful that that’s a strategy that will bring people together.

SANDS: Did Florida going medical have anything to do with the timing of —

GAETZ: Sure. Sure. I mean,  look, I’ve got my name on the only two bills that have ever passed in this state that deal with medical cannabis. But, patients aren’t able to see the full effects of my legislation because of these stupid federal laws. Now I’m in Congress, and hopefully I can do something about it.

SANDS: And on that note, what are your thoughts on, you know, national scale medicalization? You know, because it’s still —

GAETZ: Well, look, cannabis can be medicine. The only reason it isn’t is because the federal government has been lying for a generation about its effects. Like a lot of other medicine, cannabis can also be abused. I would support a national standard for medical cannabis. I don’t think there’s political support for that today. Maybe we can get that political support if we can start with some high-end research.

SANDS: Well, man, thanks for laying that out for me.

GAETZ: Yeah, of course, man, I appreciate your interest.

SANDS: Always.

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