Breaking Free From Charlotte’s Web

Charlotte's Web Cannabis Now Magazine

How Florida Rep. Matt Gaetz changed to support whole-plant cannabis.


These days there are several bills looking to legalize cannabis on a national level. In addition to HR 1227, the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2017, and HR 1841, the Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol Act, another cannabis legalization bill HR 2020, which would reschedule cannabis to Schedule III of the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), the same classification as Marinol. Though it may not be quite as progressive as HR 1227, which aims to remove cannabis from the CSA entirely, nor HR 1841 which aims to regulate it like alcohol (also not part of the CSA), what makes HR 2020 unique is not what it does, so much as who sponsored it. While HR 1227 was sponsored by Rep. Jared Polis of Colorado, a time-honored veteran of defending the right to use cannabis, and HR 1841 was sponsored by the freshman Rep. Tom Garrett, who ran on a platform of medical cannabis legalization, HR 2020 was sponsored by Rep. Matt Gaetz, one of the primary architects of Florida’s ultra-restrictive CBD-only law. What caused Rep. Gaetz to have his change of heart from only supporting the most limited of medical laws, to being a proponent of a much more progressive whole-plant federal legalization bill?

Why Gaetz’ Charlotte’s Web Law Failed

Shortly before last November’s election, I spoke with June Cutright, a Florida medical cannabis patient who uses it to treat her multiple sclerosis, trigeminal neuralgia and occipital neuralgia. Her neuralagia causes chronic, excruciating pain “like a dentist drilling my teeth and hitting a nerve,” she said. As Cutright tells it, she was initially opposed to medical marijuana, but that changed when she lost her appetite and her doctor suggested “putting a port in my neck to feed me through there, or that I could use marijuana to stimulate my appetite,” she said. Since then, Cutright has used cannabis daily to manage her conditions.

“All day I can be active, but in the evenings the pain gets to the worst and then I am ready for some marijuana to tamp that down a bit. It works on quite a few different things and I feel better.”

In 2014, while he was house criminal justice chairman in the Florida House of Representatives, Matt Gaetz was the Republican half of the bipartisan HB 843, often referred to as Florida’s Charlotte’s Web law. The bill legalized the medical use of low THC cannabis in non-smoked forms. While having any cannabis law on the books is a success for Florida, some volunteers with Amendment 2 believe this law was passed as a means to subvert whole-plant legalization, which would have been a much bigger win for patients. In 2014, when I interviewed Dr. Allen Frankel about the rampant spread of CBD-only laws, he was clear about how few patients CBD-only could help.

“If I could only prescribe CBD, that would negatively impact 80 percent of my patients,” he said.

HB 843 did little for patients, as it was so highly regulated and full of flaws that it took over two years of legal challenges to sort it out and actually get cannabis into the hands of what few patients could qualify.

In 2015, Gaetz described issues in implementing his bill as an “unsolved mystery,” later going on to say “there’s a special layer in hell for the people who are filing challenges” to HB 843. That same year, I spoke to Howard Gunn Jr, the president of Florida’s Black Farmers Association, he commented that the bill overlooked minority farmers as well as “small farmers, urban farmers, the new generation of farmers that don’t have huge farms.” What Gunn was referring to is an amendment added to SB 1030 (the senate version of HB 843) that requires a nursery be at least 30 years old and capable of producing at least 400,000 plants. Little has been done in the two years since to make things more equitable to small and minority-owned farms, as Florida continues to be dominated by just seven license-holders who have an oligopoly on the state’s cannabis market and patient’s access to medicine.

In Florida, the Politics Are as Dirty as Swamp Water

In return for the very profitable system they helped set up for those license-holders, Gaetz and Senator Bradley who authored SB 1030, both received donations of $35,000 to their political action committees from Costa Farms, one of the original five license-holders. On top of that, Gaetz received another $15,000 directly from Costa Farms for his run for Congress; out of the $369,000 in donations Costa handed out to legislators and the governor, Gaetz got nearly 14 percent. Costa is not alone, Gaetz also got a hefty check for $21,600 from Surterra Holdings, affiliated with Alpha/Surterra, one of the other original five. His largest donation of all came from the Lewis Bear Company, a family-run beer distribution company affiliated with InBev/Anheuser-Busch. That wasn’t the only money he received from Big Alcohol, receiving a pittance of $7,500 from the National Beer Wholesalers Association.

Matt Gaetz isn’t the only member of his family who is cozy with Big Alcohol, his father blazed that trail many years ago. Rep. Gaetz father, Don Gaetz, a former Florida politician, was quite blunt when speaking on his relations with the alcohol industry when asked about them in 2014. “One of my very best friends is an Anheuser-Busch distributor,” Don Gaetz said. “I’m with the beer distributors in my district.” That friend happens to be Lewis Bear, as well as his son Lewis Bear Jr., a family of beer distributors who have been major donors to campaigns for both Gaetzs over the years. These donations have already paid off for the Bears, netting Lewis Bear a seat on the Enterprise Florida Board of Directors, putting him in a place to exercise control over the state’s economic development.

These familial ties to Big Alcohol make the $50,000 Gaetz received from Costa Farms particularly interesting because Charlie Acevedo, their vice president of sales and marketing, previously owned an Anheuser-Busch distribution company, and held multiple managerial positions with Anheuser-Busch, his final position being director of marketing for Latin America. Acevedo isn’t the only one to come over from Big Business, Drew Hendry, Costa’s senior manager of business operations was the North American finance manager for Burger King until Costa hired him four years ago.

All of these donations pale when compared to Gaetz’ biggest contribution, a game-winning check for $292,000. While he was in the Florida House of Representatives, Gaetz was the chairman of two leadership PACs that he stepped down from three days before announcing his bid to run for Congress. Just three months later, those PACs both contributed all of their remaining funds to Gaetz’ new Super Pac, North Florida Neighbors (NFN); that one $380,314 donation was about 65 percent of the total funds raised by NFN. To date, that Super PAC has spent $292,262 to win Gaetz a seat in Congress. The question at the time was, and truly still is, did Gaetz instruct his successor about what to do with the funds or was that a decision he made on his own?

Learning From Mistakes, Or Paying Back Favors?

Like with the question of whether Gaetz instructed his replacement to donate all of the PAC money to his campaign, another question remains, what caused a staunch proponent of CBD-only laws to abandon that and have such an abrupt change of heart? Is he learning from the mistakes he made in Florida, trying to pass a very unpopular and restrictive bill? Or is this another set up, like in Florida, where some political friends can come out on top? While the stakes in Florida were high, at the Congressional craps table, Gaetz is gambling with a much bigger ante, and the fate of America’s cannabis legalization is on the table.

Many in the alcohol industry, including the CEO of Constellation Brands, are looking at cannabis and alcohol as something that “will work out synergistically.” Costa Farms is clearly an example of that, having recruited veteran talent from the alcohol industry to use their knowledge to develop the fledgling cannabis industry. Though the Lewis Bear company is not presently involved with Costa, one has to wonder, how many degrees of separation can there be between two major Anheuser-Busch distributors operating in the same state market? To give Gaetz the benefit of the doubt, perhaps the reason why she was his own largest campaign contributor is to keep his neutrality when being plied with huge donations from Big Alcohol and Big Cannabis.

“This is a political decision,” says Cutright, “a money decision, it’s not a medical decision, and it is for their own personal gain. As patients we are caught up in this, and so is everybody else in the War on Drugs.”

When asked about those who call cannabis a dangerous drug, or continue to insist it doesn’t have medical value, like current attorney general Jeff Sessions, Cutright had a strong message to deliver.

“I get really pissed off when people say that marijuana is dangerous,” he said. “I am not taking a dangerous drug, I am taking a safe drug. Rather than taking a bunch of pills for all my conditions I can just use one herb, so I don’t want to hear about dangerous drugs. If all cannabis does is give us euphoria and that is the only outcome, how is that a bad outcome?”

TELL US, do you live in a CBD-only state?

Mitchell Colbert became a cannabis activist when he was busted for possession at nineteen years old and was inspired to educate others to know their rights. He has written for Weedist, AlterNet, High Times, Cannabis Now Magazine and runs a blog called wellsuitedforlife.com. He's a former chapter president of Students for Sensible Drug Policy and was a regional director for 2010's Prop 19 campaign to legalize cannabis in California.

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