Few state representatives are as well-known as Carlos Guillermo Smith (FL-D). Over the past year or so, Smith — who defines himself as LGBTQ Latinx, a gender-neutral term often used in lieu of Latino or Latina — has received attention for his overt support of cannabis legalization, both in his home state and on a federal level. Smith has made a case for legalization in the Florida Capitol on more than one occasion.
“There aren’t a whole lot of politicians who actually care,” Brett Puffenbarger, owner of Florida-based business The Cannabis Consort, told Benzinga regarding Smith. “At least here in Florida, it is very rare to find national or state-level politicians who are actually elected ... who are as committed to legalization and as real, in general, as people, as Carlos [Smith] is. Carlos is committed to numerous causes, like the LGBTQ cause, the inclusion of Latinos, and, of course, cannabis legalization.”
From Retail To Politics
Even though Smith was interested in cannabis when he first started in politics during Barack Obama’s first term, he said it was certainly not his No. 1 priority.
“What I realized when Obama got elected in 2008 was that I wanted to keep campaigning, to keep helping him out like I had been. I realized that what that meant was trying to help him implement his progressive agenda, but also help more candidates like him get elected to office,” Smith told Benzinga in a recent conversation.
While maintaining a job at Men’s Wearhouse, he became what someone close to him defined as a “super-volunteer” -- someone who volunteered for as many causes, campaigns and organizations as humanly possible.
Smith’s consistent involvement in politics landed him a job as a legislative aide for Florida Rep. Scott Randolph and, later, for Rep. Joe Saunders. Smith describes this experience as transformational.
This phase of his life ended with Smith taking over the chairmanship of the Orange County Democratic Party: “This was my political coming of age, as I was doing more than just volunteering,” he said.
An Evolving Activist
Smith was always interested in helping Florida’s population. Even though he identified as a member of the LGBTQ community, he said he wasn't deep into LGBTQ rights activism, but rather many progressive causes. By the time Smith ran for office, he was managing the governmental affairs team of Equality Florida, the state’s LGBTQ civil rights organization.
Florida lawmakers tried to pass a bill prohibiting members of the transgender community from using the public restroom that best aligned with their gender identity, obliging them to use the restroom assigned to their “biological gender” — something that puts transgender people at more risk than many would assume, Smith said.
The bill was defeated, but the process left Smith "angered and so outraged." The experience made him realize that in order to be an effective advocate — for issues such as LGBTQ rights, cannabis and criminal justice reform, animal rights and higher education — he needed to run for office.
In 2016, Smith won that election. During the campaign, the terrorist attack at the gay Orlando nightclub Pulse occurred, leaving 49 dead, dozens injured and countless people traumatized.
“This changed everything. It even changed who I am as a person,” Smith told Benzinga. “This was not only an attack on my close friends, but also on my community.”
Pulse: Before And After
The Pulse tragedy drew Smith into the debate over mental health care and closer to cannabis as a therapeutic alternative.
Many of the massacre’s victims, and their friends and families, used cannabis to treat PTSD, he said.
“There is a lot of stigma around mental care, the same as [there is] around cannabis,” Smith said. “But both are really necessary for some people."
Up until this point, Smith said he associated PTSD with military veterans. After the Pulse shooting, he noticed some close friends were able to sleep at night with cannabis, rather than alcohol or prescription drugs.
"Only smoking weed before going to bed could help them avoid nightmares and other symptoms of PTSD.”
Smith’s deeper understanding of guns, mass shootings, and cannabis led him to decide that, when elected, the first bill he would advocate for would be focused on banning military-style assault weapons and large capacity magazines. And he did.
“I don’t oppose the Second Amendment and I don’t oppose guns, but I don’t think people need military-style weapons, made for war, for their personal protection,” he said.
'Bold And Unapologetic'
With a limited number of bills he could pursue in a year, Smith next focused on a full decriminalization bill for cannabis. Since voters in Florida asked Legislature to enact a medical cannabis system, Smith said he knew pot would be discussed in the Florida House — and felt decriminalization was the next logical step after medical weed, but before adult use and full legalization. Smith said wanted to ease the public and politicians into legalization.
Even though Smith’s decriminalization bill didn't pass, it received a state Senate hearing. He has continued to advocate for medical cannabis reform in a state where the medical law is often characterized as "terrible."
“I was very bold and unapologetic. I like to talk about cannabis like regular people talk about it every day, instead of tiptoeing around the issue. If people said they liked to ‘smoke a bowl,’ I said that same thing in the Florida House,” he said.
Smith said he continues to rally support for this cause and other critical issues impacting his home state state and its most vulnerable populations.
Image credit: Steven0049 [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons
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