In a recent incident in Tampa, Florida, Pinellas County Judge Dorothy Vaccaro advised a 21-year-old defendant in a misdemeanor DUI case against using medical marijuana to alleviate her anxiety. Vaccaro argued that the defendant, who claimed to suffer from anxiety, did not have sufficient grounds to use the drug. Stating that the woman should instead consider Xanax. A more potent drug with widely known side effects.
It is important to note that Vaccaro is not a licensed medical professional. Additionally, the woman in question was not seeking medical advice but was instead appearing in court as a defendant. In a recording from a Jan. 12 hearing obtained by the Tampa Bay Times, an exchange between a Pinellas County judge and a defendant in a misdemeanor DUI case highlights the continued resistance to medical marijuana from the highest levels of the criminal justice system.
Despite its legalization in Florida seven years ago and over 800,000 patients being allowed to take medical marijuana
During the hearing, the judge rejected the defendant’s use of medical marijuana while setting the terms of her probation. And instead, suggested Xanax, a drug with widely known side effects. While judges are given considerable discretion to address societal issues, some may question whether the judge overstepped her bounds in this case.
The low-down on Florida’s drug laws
In 2016, Florida passed a medical marijuana law that permits qualified physicians to authorize medical marijuana for patients with various physical and mental conditions. According to legal experts and judges, the use of medical marijuana is frequently allowed for people on probation.
However, during a hearing on Jan. 12, Judge Vaccaro ordered a drug test. She also warned the defendant that she could be arrested without bail if she continued to use marijuana. (People on probation are generally prohibited from using drugs or alcohol except for prescriptions.)
Vaccaro, who was appointed to the bench in 2002 by Governor Jeb Bush after serving as a state prosecutor, said three times during the 14-minute conversation that she thought the defendant was too young to use medical marijuana.
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Speaking out on drug consumption, Vaccaro made it clear that she thought Xanax would do the job
“Anxiety can be done a different way, through alprazolam, right? Xanax,” Vaccaro said, suggesting the woman go to a primary care doctor. “So they can deal with that that way, and there’s a drug that they can give you.” In response to the woman’s claim that she used medical marijuana to alleviate her anxiety, the judge repeatedly expressed her disapproval. She was suggesting instead that the woman consider using Xanax.
Despite being allowed by law, the use of medical marijuana remains controversial and faces resistance from various quarters, including the criminal justice system. Judges have wide latitude to weigh in on such issues. But it remains unclear whether the judge overstepped in this particular case.
People on probation are generally prohibited from using drugs or alcohol, but medical marijuana is often allowed with proper authorization. In this case, however, the judge ordered a drug test. She then threatened to arrest the woman without bond if she continued to use marijuana.
The judge stated that she might reconsider her decision if the woman got a letter of support from another doctor. Or if Xanax didn’t work out for her. The woman’s lawyer agreed that his client would try Xanax instead. For privacy reasons, the woman’s identity has not been disclosed.
What is Xanax and how does it stack up next to medical marijuana?
Alprazolam, commonly known as Xanax, is a benzodiazepine used to treat anxiety. It acts by slowing down the central nervous system and reducing brain activity. As stated by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, according to Jaggers Keene, a primary care physician in Largo, Xanax can have harmful side effects for some individuals, including seizures and suicidal ideation.
As the court case pertained to probation for driving under the influence, Keene warned that combining alcohol with alprazolam can be deadly. Stephen Thompson, spokesperson for the 6th Judicial Circuit where Judge Vaccaro serves, claimed that the judge was recommending alternatives to the woman’s medical marijuana use.
Thompson mentioned that due to judicial regulations, Vaccaro could not provide direct commentary on the case. “She didn’t order the defendant to take those drugs,” Thompson wrote in a statement. According to Stephen Thompson, a spokesperson for the 6th Judicial Circuit where Judge Vaccaro presides, anxiety is not considered a qualifying condition for medical marijuana use while on probation.
Although Florida law permits medical marijuana use for conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder, doctors are given discretion in deciding who to prescribe it to. Thompson also noted that Vaccaro does approve medical marijuana use in some cases,. But that other judges in the 6th Judicial Circuit sometimes deny its use to people on probation.
He emphasized that merely possessing a medical marijuana card or having documentation from a medical marijuana doctor is insufficient to justify its use while on probation
Judge William Burgess, who serves in the 6th Circuit, stated that he could only speak for his courtroom and that he permits the use of medical marijuana cards and considers them like other medications prescribed by doctors. Mike Moore, the public information officer in Hillsborough County, mentioned that he is not aware of any judge in the 13th Judicial Circuit who prohibits the use of medical marijuana on probation—saying that it is up to the doctor to decide what to prescribe and not the judge.
The federal illegality of marijuana can complicate matters for judges, according to Stephen Thompson, a spokesperson for the 6th Judicial Circuit. However, Craig Whisenhunt, a partner at the law firm Ripley Whisenhunt PLLC in Pinellas Park, argued that federal law should not matter in county court since medical marijuana is legal in the state of Florida. “If you’re going to interpret the law that way, why isn’t the state attorney’s office raiding all of the medical marijuana dispensaries?” Whisenhunt said.
What would the judge’s role actually be here?
Some legal experts are questioning the actions of Judge Vaccaro during the hearing with the defendant, as medical marijuana creates a legal gray area. Charles Geyh, a professor in the Maurer School of Law at Indiana University Bloomington, who teaches and writes about judicial conduct, ethics, and accountability, said judges have a responsibility to stick to what can be proven and not make decisions based on their preferences.
Geyh raised concerns that Vaccaro “basically trumped the judgment of a physician without gathering all the facts.” Bob Jarvis, a law professor at Nova Southeastern University who has written about Florida’s judicial rules, referred to Florida’s judicial canons. These are the rules that judges are sworn to follow. And said Vaccaro shouldn’t have mentioned the woman’s age as a reason to deny her use of medical marijuana.
Jarvis said that when a judge decides on sight that someone is too young to need a type of medication, it’s a slippery slope. It can lead to the judge making other assumptions, and the entire system falls apart. “The judge was leaving her lane,” said Geyh.
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- “Florida Judge Suggests Medical Marijuana Patient Take Xanax Instead.” Forbes. AJ Herrington. May 2, 2023
- “Pinellas judge denies defendant’s use of medical marijuana, suggests Xanax instead” Tampa Bay Times. April 29, 2023.
- “Fla. judge denies defendant’s use of medical marijuana, suggests Xanax instead.” The Lawton Constitution. Justin Garcia. May 1, 2023