Rep. Matt Gaetz calls himself a "constitutional conservative." Joining other Republicans in rolling back environmental regulations wasn't enough for the 34-year-old freshman congressman from a conservative district in Florida. Not long after arriving on Capitol Hill, Gaetz introduced a bill that would get rid of the Environmental Protection Agency altogether.
That bill generated headlines but remains stuck in committee, and now Gaetz is looking to make another splash with a completely different issue: marijuana. Earlier this week, his office tweeted infographics listing different diseases that are treated with medical marijuana and posted another graphic detailing the social costs of marijuana prohibition on Facebook. The posts suggested that Gaetz and Rep. Darren Soto (D), a fellow Floridian, are preparing to introduce legislation that would take marijuana off the federal government's Schedule I list of drugs considered too dangerous to be legal for any purpose, including medicine.
Expanding access to marijuana is certainly not on the GOP's agenda, and has never been a top priority among congressional Democrats either. So, why is a self-described conservative sticking up for medical weed?
For years, even liberal lawmakers told marijuana advocates that while reform may be a good idea, the political will to make it happen did not exist, at least at the federal level. That is all starting to change now that legalization is becoming increasingly popular in the polls and more states are moving ahead with reforms, despite the Trump administration's pledges to crack down on illicit drugs, potentially including marijuana.
Gaetz is expected to propose placing marijuana on the government's Schedule II list, where it would still be considered to have a "high potential for abuse" but also accepted medical uses. Opioids such as fentanyl and morphine are currently categorized as Schedule II drugs. Marijuana is, of course, far less dangerous than morphine. Justin Strekal, the political director at the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said placing marijuana on Schedule II is timid compared others proposed reforms, but it's an encouraging sign.
"A Republican from Florida directing their office staff to make little memes about medical marijuana [on social media]…that's a good thing to see," Strekal told Truthout.
Will Jeff Sessions Target Legal Weed?
Gaetz, who previously ushered limited medical cannabis measures through the Florida legislature, is not the only lawmaker working on weed policy. Congress recently saw the creation of a bipartisan "Cannabis Caucus" along with a flurry of proposed marijuana reforms, including two bills that would legalize marijuana nationwide. Voters in eight states approved ballot measures legalizing either recreational or medical weed in last November's election, and legislation to decriminalize or legalize marijuana is on the move in cities and states across the country.
These efforts come amid widespread speculation over how Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the outspoken marijuana prohibitionist that President Trump picked to roll out his "law and order" agenda at the Justice Department, will proceed.
Marijuana remains illegal under federal law, and both Sessions and the White House have sent mixed messages about federal marijuana enforcement, raising fears about a possible crackdown in states where the drug is legal for recreational use. On Thursday, Sessions issued a memo asking a new crime reduction task force created by the White House to review federal policies on marijuana enforcement and report back to him by July, providing advocates with a time frame in which to expect further policy moves by the Trump administration.
Under President Obama, the Justice Department adopted a policy that generally prevented federal raids on marijuana businesses that comply with state laws, while continuing to target unlicensed marijuana operations. As a result, the number of federal prison sentences for marijuana violations has dropped dramatically since 2012, according to NORML. Still, 3,000 people -- the overwhelming majority of them people of color -- received federal sentences in 2016 alone.
Sessions has called the Obama-era policy "valid" and may choose not to scrap it, but advocates warn that the attorney general has plenty of leeway to disrupt state-legal markets as long as marijuana remains prohibited at the federal level. The uncertainty has left states with legal marijuana programs anxious. On Monday, the governors of Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington sent a letter to the Justice Department asking Sessions to consult with them before making any changes to the policy established under Obama.
States that have legalized weed are now considering so-called "sanctuary" legislation to protect their legitimate marijuana businesses from the Trump administration. Last week, California Rep. Reggie Jones-Sawyer introduced a bill in the state's legislature that would bar state and local agencies from teaming up with federal law enforcement to take action against legitimate marijuana businesses, unless they receive a court order. Medical marijuana has been legal in California for years, and last year voters approved a ballot initiative for recreational use.
"I want to stop law enforcement from impeding on one of the best businesses we can start for the next millennium," Jones-Sawyer told reporters last week.
The Trump administration has indicated that it is not interested in going after medical cannabis, and Colorado lawmakers are considering a bill that would allow recreational marijuana businesses to reclassify their products as medical products "due to change in local, state or federal law enforcement policy."
"In the grand scheme of things, I think Sessions is [a] new catalyst for urgency for states and Congress to take action," Strekal said.
Congress Considers a Flurry of Marijuana Bills
In Congress, the legislation currently receiving the most attention is the Marijuana Revenue and Regulation Act, a bill recently introduced by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) and Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colorado) that would remove marijuana from drug scheduling entirely and set up a basic federal taxation and regulatory structure, allowing states to establish their own polices free from interference by the Drug Enforcement Administration. The bill is part of a package from the Cannabis Caucus that would shield individual consumers from federal prosecution and remove tax and criminal penalties that have made it difficult for marijuana businesses to access banking and other financial services.
Perhaps the most important legislation for marijuana advocates is a bill and a separate pair of budget amendments that would protect states with legal weed from federal prosecution. The proposals are designed to stop Sessions from targeting states with legal weed, even if Trump's crime task force decides that a crackdown is a good idea.
A budget amendment preventing federal prosecution of state-legal medical marijuana activities passed last year, but another amendment protecting recreational marijuana narrowly failed. Strekal said the recreational measure, which was also introduced by Rep. Polis, has a much better chance this year now that more states have passed legalization measures. However, as a budget rider, it's only good for one year. That leaves Congress with more work to do if legalized states are to be protected from the Trump administration over the course of his term.
"We absolutely expect to see advancement of legislation in Congress, but will it be the end of prohibition in this Congress? Probably not," Strekal said. "But we are cautiously optimistic about a swelling of political will behind this."