Gaetz hosts medical marijuana discussion



MILTON — Before returning to Washington, D.C., Congressman Matt Gaetz hosted a roundtable discussion at the West Florida Baptist Church Monday morning to hear from people in the faith-based community regarding medical marijuana research.

“My personal journey on this issue has been a long one,” Gaetz said to the 10 people attending.

Gaetz said as far back as 2009, he thought medical marijuana was a “hoax,” but then he met people in Northwest Florida who have benefited from the drug. One such person is RayAnn Moseley of Gulf Breeze, who was born with Dravet syndrome, a rare form of epilepsy that can render some kids nearly catatonic.

Sitting at the head of the table, Gaetz discussed the main points of his house bill, H.R. 2020, which would change marijuana from a schedule I drug to schedule III drug according to the Controlled Substance Act. Schedule III drugs are defined as drugs with moderate to low potential for physical and and psychological dependence.

Gaetz said he would like to see at least three production facilities working on medical marijuana research. Right now, he said there is just one at University of Mississippi. He would also like to create a safe harbor for such facilities so they’re not punished for researching medical marijuana. He would also like to eliminate the rule that prohibits Veterans Affairs doctors from discussing medical marijuana as a treatment option with patients.

“I want to help in a way that doesn’t create a slippery slope,” Gaetz said. “I’m trying to get the right balance.”

That slippery slope is just what most of the invited guests spoke about Monday morning. Cindy Roberts, executive director for the Pregnancy Resource Center of Milton, said that while she tries to sympathize for those in need, she worries that more access to marijuana could lead to the next opioid crisis.

“People say all the time it’s not a gateway drug … yes it is,” she said. “Why can’t they produce something else?”

Gaetz asked Roberts if they were elements of medical marijuana research that give her heartburn. She simply answered “yes.”

“Making any part of it legal scares me,” she added.

In the faith-based community, the problem with medical marijuana is more of a branding issue, said Rabbi Joel Fleekop of Temple Beth El in Pensacola.

“This bill is such an early step,” he said. “There is a branding problem. What if it were a new medicine and we didn’t call it marijuana? The concerns about (recreational) use is a completely separate issue.”

Fleekop also added that a majority of his congregation is in favor of medical marijuana, saying “every blade of grass has its own blessing and ability to heal.”

For some pastors, stereotype of a pot smoker is hard to shake. Stan Lollar, executive director of Village Ministry at Olive in Pensacola, said he doesn’t like the idea of people smoking marijuana, even for medicinal purposes.

“There’s got to be a better way,’” he said.

But Beth Matthews, a local oncology nurse, said smoking marijuana can have immediate effects for patients suffering from issues such as nausea. But even doctors can sometimes feel uncomfortable talking about medical marijuana, she said.

Traci Wilmoth was one of the only invited guests not affiliated with a church. She’s an Air Force veteran who said she was on the “combat cocktail,” a saying for multiple prescriptions taken by current and former military members, before she decided to try a more holistic approach.

She said vets don’t want to get high. They want to heal.

“I was on 22 meds … I was pretty much just laying on the couch drooling,” she said. “You need to separate the two. On one hand is a person who wants to feel better. And then there’s the person who wants to have the euphoric state and get out of their minds. Vets don’t want to go to recreational use. They don’t want to go to heroin and cocaine. We want to come back to our minds.”

Before the meeting, Justine Teichgraber, a local registered nurse, said she had the “original knee-jerk” reaction to medical marijuana. After the meeting, she walked away with a different perspective.

“We are called to take care of the ‘the least of these,’” she said referencing the Bible. “I’m not the person that needs it, but does that give me the right to deny to someone else that needs it? It may take awhile, but I pray it moves forward for the people that need it.”

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