• April 14, 2021

AOC and Matt Gaetz Allies in New Front in War on Marijuana

 AOC and Matt Gaetz Allies in New Front in War on Marijuana

Photo by Victoria Pickering, via CC

The next front in the ‘war on drugs’ doesn’t have to do with legalization of one substance or another. Rather, it’s a precision operation being waged in state legislatures from coast to coast by the nation’s premier anti-marijuana group, Smart Approaches to Marijuana (or SAM), along with its surprising and growing list of Democratic legislative allies. With cannabis now legal in one form or another in most states, instead of opposing legalization, as they were formed to do in 2013, SAM’s now engaged in an all-out assault on THC potency levels, which threatens to cripple a still new, if multi-billion dollar, industry. 

THC is central to what cannabis companies do, because it’s the main psychoactive ingredient in the popular substance (the one that makes one ‘high’). Marijuana retail workers, farmers, owners, advocates and pro-cannabis lawmakers are freaking out, because the effort is picking up steam. 

Just this week a key Florida House committee passed a measure to limit what doctors across the Sunshine State are allowed to prescribe those who have a state-issued medicinal marijuana card and, say, cancer. 

“I don’t want boomer legislators to be Florida’s new budtenders,” Rep. Matt Gaetz told The News Station while riding in an elevator in the Capitol. “I trust physicians and researchers more than politicians trying to virtue signal.”

Back when he served in Tallahassee, the Florida Republican helped spearhead and pass an expansion of the state’s initially limited medicinal marijuana measure. 

Decisions like these should be squarely in the realm of science, physicians

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

The law once only covered Florida medicinal patients suffering from ALS, cancer, Crohn’s disease, epilepsy, glaucoma, HIV/AIDS, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease or PTSD. But it’s now been expanded to include chronic pain, anxiety and other ailments. 

Just like every medication prescribed by your doctor, those patients are now used to their regimented dosages, especially those who have been in the program the past seven years.  

Most Florida marijuana ranges from 15 to 25% THC, but the measure moving through the legislature mandates a 10% cap on THC in smokable cannabis. Tens of thousands of people now dependent on the regiment their doctors prescribed them would see the strength of their medicine cut in half, or more, if it passes. 

That’s the goal. It’s not intended to punish patients with debilitating diseases (though those patients would surely have their worlds upended if it passes). Rather, the group is dubious of all the doctors — they estimate the majority of Sunshine State docs — who now regularly write scripts for casual cannabis users.

Kevin Sabet, a co-founder of SAM, proudly says his advocacy group isn’t just waging a war on high potency products, they’re also fighting for advertising restrictions and ratcheting up regulations on the industry. 

“We’re trying to lessen the influence of addiction for-profit businesses but that’s the point, because they make money off of the minority of people who consume the vast majority of their product,” Sabet said. “Absolutely we do not need more for-profit, you know, Big Tobacco, Big Alcohol related businesses living off of addiction. And so it’s very different for a 60-year-old to smoke a joint once a month than it is to promote a 22-year-old to use shatter every day, and they make their money off the latter scenario.” 

In Florida, the measure seems to have Republican support — at least in the legislature.

“I think that there may be support in the legislative chambers for that reform, but I’d be very surprised if Gov. DeSantis went that direction,” Gaetz said.

Gaetz served in Congress with now-Gov. Ron DeSantis before his fellow Republican moved into the governor’s mansion in Tallahassee. He then served as the chair of DeSantis’ transition from the campaign trail to governing. Gaetz says the governor did his homework before signing a measure allowing medicinal cannabis patients to smoke marijuana, which was initially outlawed in the state. H expects the same this time.

“We talked at great length about marijuana reform, because there were a number of pending cases at the time he took office. And he, I think, showed maturity and deference to the research and medical community on the issue of smoking [cannabis],” Gaetz said. “I don’t think he’s now going to sign a THC cap that isn’t based on any science.”

SAM’s effort is attractive to many on the right. Rep. Andy Harris is arguably marijuana’s biggest foe in Congress. The Maryland Republican told The News Station he hasn’t seen proposals to cap THC levels. But on first blush, he’s supportive.

“A lot of the arguments I’ve made over the past few years is that, you know, the marijuana that we’re seeing grown now is very different from the one that was grown 30-40 years ago — much higher in THC content,” Harris said while walking back to his office after voting in the Capitol. “And it appears that it is the THC that might well be the most dangerous component of marijuana with regards to neuro development.”

But it goes beyond the GOP. SAM and its proposal to cap THC levels was included in the Vermont recreational marijuana legalization bill — the one since signed into law. It caps THC levels at 30% for flower, or buds, while also capping concentrates at 60%.

If Vermont was the test case, the test passed. A similar framework has attracted support from a slew of Democrats in other states where recreational marijuana is legal: Washington state Rep. Lauren Davis, Massachusetts Rep. Jason Lewis and Colorado Rep. Yadira Caraveo are all champions of similar measures in their respective states.

Other Democrats are bewildered with those in their own party who are caving to these anti-marijuana lobbyists who seemingly overnight re-packaged themselves into “experts” on THC potency.  

“So when we talk about people lobbying to have caps, that’s like saying there should be a law that bans the creation of drugs with a maximum level of a certain effective product,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told The News Station. “That’s not really the realm of lawmakers. It’s the realm of medical professionals.”   

The New York progressive is warning her fellow Democrats against putting SAM’s new talking points (and its anti-cannabis history) above experts.

“Decisions like these should be squarely in the realm of science, physicians — where you have medical experts that are in the most informed position to determine what, particularly any substance with medicinal applications, should be,” Ocasio-Cortez said.

We’ve consistently been very clear that we don’t want to see legalization happening

Kevin Sabet, co-founder of SAM

In Colorado, the battle is actually being waged by the only doctor in the legislature. Even so, state Rep. Caraveo is piggybacking her effort on the back of a July 2020 Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment report.  

“Products containing a high THC concentration raise public health concern because increased dose may lead to higher potential for adverse health effects in consumers of these products,” the study reads. 

Caraveo initially used the report as a jumping off point to try and ban certain vaping products, end commissions for dispensary sales folks, and ban certain marijuana advertisements as well as her proposed THC cap. She’s since temporarily backed off — “I think those are fights to take on at another time,” she told local reporters — but she’s still dead set on the potency cap. 

That’s no accident, because SAM (i.e. Smart Approaches to Marijuana) has been quietly pushing this for years now. 

“All those kinds of things are things that are very consistent with what we’ve really always thought,” Sabet told The News Station in a long, thoughtful phone call. “They may not have gotten the headlines, but we’ve consistently been very clear that we don’t want to see legalization happening, because we think it’s commercialization, but that if it does that, you know, we need to do so in a way that’s going to have the least negative impact on public health and safety.” 

It’s just a way for Republicans to virtue signal against marijuana reform that is widely popular with people

Rep. Matt Gaetz

Sabet is a former White House Office of National Drug Control Policy advisor for the Clinton, W. Bush and Obama administrations. He says his group is walking, chewing gum and opposing high amounts of THC. 

“We can advocate against this policy of commercialization, but we can also go to states that already have it and say, ‘We get you have it. We’re not here to repeal it. We’re here to make it, you know, a little bit better if we can,’” Sabet continued. “That’s what we’re doing in places like Florida and other states.”

Meanwhile, SAM’s other co-founder, former Democratic Rep. Patrick Kennedy of Rhode Island has been lobbying the Biden administration to become its drug czar. Ocasio-Cortez won’t hear any of that.

“Well, obviously that’s a bad idea,” the congresswoman said while walking to a vote at the Capitol.

Ocasio-Cortez says this moment is a test for Biden, who she says can make the greatest impact by tapping a public health official for the role.

“That is what signals a transition. An appointment of this nature signals a transition of us looking at drug policy away from being a carceral issue and towards being a public health issue,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “That I think is just really important.”

Advocacy group NORML wants Biden to do away with the position altogether by abolishing the entire Office of National Drug Control Policy — one the new president helped create in 1988, back when he was a senator. Federal statutes require the White House Drug Czar to oppose any changes to the nation’s drug schedules, including removing marijuana from Schedule I, where it sits in a more dangerous category than cocaine or meth, which the DEA has categorized as Schedule II narcotics

“This narrow-minded, Flat Earth mentality refuses to acknowledge the reality that the majority of the country is now authorized to engage in the use of cannabis, and it mandates that US drug policy continue to be dictated by rhetoric and ideology rather than by science and evidence,” NORML’s letter to Biden reads.

Amongst pro-marijuana lawmakers the proposal from SAM is a nonstarter, but the hard part, especially for Republicans who support legalization efforts, is to convince their colleagues to reject the shiny talking points in favor of research.

“There’s no science that suggests that these THC caps improve public health or public safety,” Rep. Gaetz of Florida told The News Station. “It’s just a way for Republicans to virtue signal against marijuana reform that is widely popular with people.”

Matt Laslo

Based in Washington, Matt Laslo is a veteran political and music reporter. Since 2006, he’s been a contributor with VICE News, VICE News Tonight HBO, The Daily Beast, Rolling Stone, Playboy, Billboard, The Atlantic, NPR, etc. He’s taught journalism at Boston University (MA) and The University of Maryland (BA). And he teaches political communications at The Johns Hopkins University MA in Government and Public Policy program. He can be found on most all social media platforms as @MattLaslo.

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