Rep. Matt Gaetz is working on a bill to loosen federal restrictions on medical marijuana research and end the Department of Veterans Affairs' long-standing "gag rule" on alerting veterans about medical marijuana research trials near them.
Gaetz held two roundtable discussions Monday morning in Milton and Pensacola and announced he was working on a bill with three points that he said would allow for more research into medical marijuana.
The first point of the proposal would call for at least three facilities in the country to grow marijuana for research rather than the one at the University of Mississippi currently allowed under federal law.
"To me, that's like getting the government cheese of marijuana," Gaetz said. "You're not getting the different types of strains or concoctions or whatever — you know, I'm not a scientist — that can help people. You only get one type."
The second point would allow universities to research marijuana for medical purposes without jeopardizing their federal funding.
The final proposal of the bill would allow VA doctors to tell their patients about medical marijuana clinical trials for which they may be eligible to participate.
Gaetz, a freshman Republican, said he developed the three points after talking with other Republican lawmakers to figure what they would support.
He said he couldn't get other conservative lawmakers to agree to allowing VA doctors to recommend medical marijuana to their patients.
"I had a lot of people in Washington — frankly, a lot of conservatives — who said that was a bridge too far for them," Gaetz said. "My goal is let's start with some of the things that we would agree on. So even among the most conservative, most skeptical people in Congress, people have said that (Gaetz's bill) doesn't offend them."
Gaetz, who has been a proponent of medical marijuana since his time in the Florida Legislature, filed a bill last year that would remove marijuana from the Schedule I drug list. Schedule I drugs under the Controlled Substances Act are deemed to have no medical purpose.
Gaetz has also condemned U.S. Attorney General Jeff Session for reversing an Obama-era policy of federal prosecutors not bringing cases against marijuana dispensaries operating under state law.
At the first of his two roundtables Monday morning, Gaetz met with local religious leaders at the West Florida Baptist Church in Milton to discuss the issue.
Many of the leaders said they were open to Gaetz's proposal but were worried about what comes after the research.
"I've got 27 beds devoted to women dealing with addiction, and most of them would tell you they started with marijuana," said Stan Lollar, executive director at Ministry Village at Olive. "And so, to separate your mind from the medical side of it. The actual drug use side of it is an issue for millions of people that sit in our pews, and for myself. ... Somebody's got a lot of selling to do before we separate it in people's minds."
At the second roundtable at the University of West Florida, Gaetz spoke to a room filled with mostly veterans interested in the medical marijuana issue.
Many in the room were concerned the VA will suspend benefits or kick veterans out of pain management programs if they test positive for marijuana.
Gaetz said his current proposal doesn't address that. But after hearing from people worried about the issue, he said he will look into a way to prevent that from happening.
"Honestly, one of the reason we're having roundtables like this is to really tease out some of the issues that ... folks are dealing with in our community," Gaetz said. "And so we'll now go back to Washington tonight and start looking at different options so that people who use medical marijuana don't see other elements of their health care revoked unnecessarily."
One participant in the roundtable asked Gaetz why he couldn't bring up the issue during one of his appearances on Fox News or another cable channel. Gaetz laughed off the question, saying the cable outlets won't let him talk about it.
Gaetz has become a regular on cable news shows, often advocating that there is bias in special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
When asked by the News Journal if he'll use his growing media presence to advocate for the issue, Gaetz said he speaks with President Donald Trump regularly and has brought up medical marijuana to the president.
"I speak with President Trump regularly," Gaetz said. "Not every member of Congress does, and I've talked to the president about medical marijuana, and I think that being able to have a direct line of communication to the president of the United States only helps all of Northwest Florida amplify our priorities."
Gaetz said he will have more roundtable discussions on the issue and hopes to file a bill in the coming months.
"When I began this process in Florida, my own dad (former Florida Senate President Don Gaetz) told me that I had gone one toke over the line," Gaetz said. "That I was never going to win another election again. That it was all over. And to me, it was worth it because there's so much in government that we do that it impacts people such on the margins. It may be a little bit or a little bit worse with your life. This is an issue that if we get this right, we could really improve the quality of life for a large number of people."