Five questions for Rep. Katie Edwards

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Representative Katie Edwards has a businesslike approach that resonates with legislative leaders and constituents alike. She claims endorsements from the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Associated Industries of Florida, the National Rifle Association, the Florida Medical Association – and the Florida AFL-CIO and the Service Employees International Union. 

Edwards first ran for the House in 2010 and was elected overwhelmingly last year. She’s from a political family; her father, Bruce, served on the Plantation City Council and her uncle, Ted Edwards, is an Orange County Commissioner. She has a bachelor’s degree in agricultural economics from Clemson and earned her law degree at Florida International University last year – even as she was running for the House. 

Edwards is the former executive director of the Dade County Farm Bureau and served on the Planning and Zoning Board of the City of Plantation. She now serves on the House panels for Agriculture and Natural Resources, Agriculture and Natural Resources Appropriations, Ethics and Elections and Health and Human Services.

The News Service of Florida has five questions for Katie Edwards:

Q: You’re in a unique position as a centrist Democrat at a time of increasing bipartisanship in Tallahassee. Is it a role you embrace?

EDWARDS: I love it, and I think there are many more like me out there. I think there are people that really do want to focus, first and foremost, on getting Floridians back to work, and secondly, on improving our education system. Granted, there are lots of ideas on how we go about doing it, but I think in having the debate, we end up with a much better product than we would have had had it just been one person’s agenda or one party’s agenda.

Since the minority party, the Democrats, have increased numbers, that forces the Republicans to look at our numbers and say, “They should have a voice in the process and they should have their concerns vetted and heard in a very fair and transparent way.”

So I think at the end of the day it’s hopefully going to result in a better product than what we began with.

Q: How does your business background affect your role as a lawmaker?

EDWARDS: I look at things in terms of cost-benefit analysis. If it doesn’t make sense to me financially, and if it doesn’t make sense to me from an outcome standpoint, then I am not afraid to ask the difficult questions on why we’re going to do this. In particular, I think it’s served me well with being on the Ethics and Elections committee, when we’re talking about how we deter candidates and elected officials from engaging in what the public views as corrupt or bad behavior. 

My thing is: We have fines in place. Are they discouraging people from doing bad things? Acting in corrupt ways? And so when I ask those kinds of questions, it unnerves some people, but I want to know that when we’re enacting these laws that place arbitrary caps and fines, that it has a deterrent effect that achieves our purpose, which is to make public officials more accountable and make sure that our actions are transparent and ethical. And how we get there, I think, needs to be very carefully crafted.

Q: That approach meshes with the growing emphasis of House leadership on measurement in, say, smart justice.

EDWARDS: It does. I have a bill, for example, House Bill 159, that deals with sentencing for controlled substance violations. I find it offensive when the Department of Corrections comes back to lawmakers and says, “We have a budget deficit of $74 million, but it’s okay, folks, we’re going to fix it internally.” No, they’re not. They’re going to come back to us, and they’re going to eventually need money from the budget and we’re going to have to make the appropriation. 

Those are budget constraints that our policies, our laws, have placed on us. And so I look at: Are we sending violent people to jail that we don’t want to have in our society? Or are we sending people to jail for non-violent crimes that can otherwise be rehabilitated and put back on the right track? Because to me, you don’t put someone that has a prescription drug addiction in jail. You treat that person, you get them help, you go after the person that trafficked the drugs and you get them off the street and you make them pay – but you don’t incarcerate the person that has the prescription drug addiction.

And so I struggle with that with the (Florida) Sheriff’s Association, with the prosecutors, and I hold their feet to the fire and say, “Tell me why you think this is a cost-effective policy.”

Q: Talk about your medical marijuana bill. What kind of reaction are you getting?

EDWARDS: I’m not in favor of legalizing marijuana for recreational purposes. I’m doing this for a very specific reason, and that is, right now, for medicinal purposes.

It’s interesting. We’ve had several people sign on as co-sponsors. There have been polls done in this state – there’s a group called People United for Medicinal Marijuana. They did a poll and found that seven in 10 Floridians support legalizing marijuana for medicinal purposes…

Look, if you had asked me two years ago, when Sen. Jeff Clemens introduced this bill, would I support it, I would have said, “Absolutely not.” But in campaigning and talking to people who are sick and who confide in me what they’ve had to go through – this isn’t a partisan issue. This isn’t an issue about whether we decriminalize marijuana for everything. This is a recognition that it is happening, there are people who are sick, and these people who are very sick believe this is something that helps provide some relief from their suffering. And why am I going to criminalize that when people legitimately are asking for it?

Q: Critics say marijuana is a gateway drug that leads to others.

EDWARDS: I’ve heard that argument so many times. If a person has an addictive personality, they’ll be addicted to something, whether it’s alcohol, whether it’s cigarettes, whether it’s gambling, whether it’s marijuana. So that argument, to me, does not hold water. 

I look at it from a psychological standpoint. Addiction – I don’t think there’s anything we as lawmakers can do to prevent the brain from functioning that way. But I do not accept that marijuana cannot be used for legit medical purposes because some people may become addicted to it. We’re looking at, essentially, being able to take the cannabis plant in this state and harvest the medicinal, beneficial purposes, or the extracts from that – really, in a pill or oil format – and be able to have a physician prescribe it to a patient that has, for example, ALS – Lou Gehrig’s disease, cancer, rheumatoid arthritis – all the things that may be able to be relieved by the medicinal benefits of cannabis.

And that’s a conversation we’re going to have to have in this state. I think lawmakers recognize that there are people all around us who, maybe, smoke marijuana for recreational or medicinal purposes. I have too many people come to me and say, “Look, So-and-So that I know…” People have personal stories. And they don’t feel like criminals because a person that they love is in so much pain that they’re willing to break a law to get them marijuana to give them some ounce of relief….

If I can give them a pill that contains a cannabis extract that provides some relief from their pain and suffering, then by all means we should do it. And we should tax it, and we should regulate it and make sure that it’s available in a legal and safe way to our citizens, because they shouldn’t be criminalized for going about it the wrong way.

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Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.