By Gary Stein
Our elected officials get a plethora of input from phone calls, e-mails and desperate testimony in town halls and committee meetings.
But, most likely, the decisions they make are done in those quiet, introspective moments when they process all that they have read and heard. But sometimes, they reach out for guidance from higher authorities.
This is the case for the new pieces of legislation being filed and considered on medical marijuana.
In many of the recent comments from officials and candidates, the word “compassion” has been thrown around a lot. In years past, compassion rarely came up in the discussion over medical cannabis. To be honest, very little conversation about it occurred “in the sunshine.” Sen. Jeff Clemens, D-Lake Worth, is on his fourth yearly attempt to bring a bill to debate. In previous years, the bills fell to the tables without a sound.
But this year, things are different. This legislative session has, as Rep. Dennis Baxley(R-Ocala) artfully stated, “a nexus of issues that swirl around the public policy regarding substances that are illegal that may have medical benefit.”
One of the things that brought about this nexus included several polls that say up to 82 percent of the voters surveyed approved of legalizing medical marijuana. But many on the right who are warming to this idea don’t seem to be mentioning those polls.
The bills that have a good chance of passing this year are being supported by elected advocates who seem to be listening to higher powers.
Rep. Katie Edwards, D-Plantation, who filed HB1139 last year with Clemens, has devoted her efforts this year to a bill that would allow the use of a strain of marijuana with a very low THC level (the chemical that provides the euphoria). The strain, known as “Charlotte’s Web” (and previously known as “Hippie’s Disappointment” because it fails to produce a buzz) has practically no value to the usual marijuana consumer.
However, the oil extract, high in a chemical called CBD (cannabidiol), has been shown to be highly effective in treating previously untreatable and debilitating seizure disorders.
Edwards got an unexpected champion for her bill from House Criminal Justice Subcommittee Chairman Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar. In the past, he had shown little compassion. Medicaid recipients, he once said, preferred to sit on their couch and play “Grand Theft Auto.”
But this time, Gaetz said that he was moved to tears after watching a report on how Charlotte’s Web helps children with seizure disorders. It is heartening to see what seems to be a true reaction to the needs of constituents rather than political haranguing. I applaud his candor.
Soon after Gaetz filed his bill with Edwards, a letter to constituents was released by his conservative father and President of the Senate, Don Gaetz, R-Niceville. Sen. Gaetz stated, “I recognize the position Matt and I have taken may be controversial in the minds of some of our Northwest Florida neighbors. It has taken time and prayer and struggle for me to arrive at my position.”
Sen. Jeff Bradley, R-Fleming Island, told his constituents that he decided to file the Senate companion bill to the Gaetz-Edwards bill, “after much prayer and discussion with my family and colleagues.”
The elevation of the subject to a theological level is not uncommon across the country. Many legislators from Georgia to Kentucky to Iowa have invoked conversations with God as they came to embrace medical marijuana.
It is also coming from their public. Iowa Christian talk show host Reike Plecas said on his program, “Bishop Hagler, I’m going to ask that you pray for our legislators in Iowa, that their minds be changed to a godset state of mind, that God just lay on their hearts to really look at the research that’s been done in regards to these oils and these plants.”
Those giving testimony in committee chambers have also said they prayed for legislation to ease their children’s suffering.
I applaud Rep. Gaetz, Sen. Gaetz and Rep. Dennis Baxley, as well as Speaker Will Weatherford for taking what appears to them to be a controversial stance.
This debate provided a surprising admission this week. Sen. Gaetz admitted that in 1983 he helped a friend and Methodist chaplain, E. Ronal Mudd, obtain marijuana to ease his suffering as he was dying from cancer. The type of marijuana that helped Gaetz’s friend would not be addressed by the Charlotte’s Web bill, but Baxley said this bill “may be a template for future efforts.”
I respect their spiritual beliefs. However, I also believe that if they are truly praying, then they will not just hear the voice of their deity, but, channeled through the response, all the voices of the people of Florida that God ultimately hears as well.
And those Floridians, coincidently, are the constituents they serve.
Gary Stein, MPH, a native Detroiter, worked for the Centers for Disease Control, landed in the Tampa Bay area to work for the State Tobacco program and is now a health advocate and activist and blogger for the Huffington Post.