Pinellas County Judge Dorothy Vaccaro has many tips and tricks under her robe. Placed on the county bench back when Jeb Bush was the Republican Governor of Florida, she has brought back the age-old talent of voicing her personal opinions over a case. This time, it comes as a 21-year-old defendant faces off against the judge on a misdemeanor DUI charge who told the judge that she uses medical marijuana.
Clearly overstepping her bounds, Vaccaro told the young lady that she doesn’t have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or cancer, and as such, shouldn’t use medical marijuana. Instead, the judge told her to get off medical marijuana and, instead, wants her on Xanax as conditions of her probation. Mind you, the judge is not a medical doctor and most certainly not the doctor for the defendant.
This exchange occurred on January 12th, with the Tampa Bay Times uncovering it and reporting on it on April 30th. With over 800,000 medical marijuana patients across the state, cannabis isn’t going anywhere from the Sunshine State anytime soon. While judges are trusted to make decisions and share their opinions about society in their rulings, this could be a case of a judge simply going way too far.
According to multiple past rulings, medical marijuana has been widely allowed in the state even while on probation since it was legalized for medical use in 2016. Yet, during her hearing on January 12th, the judge ordered drug testing and threatened to have her incarcerated if she kept using medical marijuana. While people are typically not allowed drugs or alcohol while on probation, exemptions are made for medical use with a doctor’s prescription.
During the 14-minute incident, the 21-year veteran of the bench and previous state prosecutor, voiced her opinions about the woman being too young for medical marijuana. “Anxiety can be done a different way, through alprazolam, right? Xanax…So they can deal with that that way, and there’s a drug that they can give you.” Vaccaro then said if she got “all wiggy” on Xanax or if a second doctor wrote a letter in support of her marijuana use, she might reconsider.
Stephen Thompson is the spokesperson for the 6th Judicial Circuit, where Vaccarro’s district is located. From where he sits, the judge never explicitly ordered her to get on Xanax, and said she was instead making suggestions instead of medical marijuana.
With the FL state law for medical marijuana not explicitly authorizing medical marijuana for a list of reasons for its prescription, things like cancer, PTSD, physical injuries, and even sleeping difficulties are authorized. Additionally, the state gives doctors a wide level of discretion about who they prescribe it to.
In Thompson’s words, multiple judges across the 6th circuit have denied the use of medical marijuana to people on probation, and that simply having a medical marijuana card “does not suffice” nor will a doctor’s recommendation.
Contrastingly, Judge William Burgess told the Tampa Bay Times that he has no issues with medical marijuana while on probation but could only speak about his courtroom. Much the same, across the bay in Hillsborough County (the home of Tampa) spokesman Mike Moore claimed he couldn’t think of a judge who has a policy against medical marijuana for people on probation.
With the status of marijuana conflicting between the states and the federal laws, many judges find themselves operating in a grey area when it comes to applying the law. Unfortunately for Vaccaro, this isn’t a federal case. Federal law is immaterial to this case, as the state has set its own law. If it did, then the state would be raiding the dispensaries across the state.
As various legal experts from across the country have sounded off in response to this story, many are admonishing the judge for trying to tip her toe into the realm of medicine. In their views, this is a realm she doesn’t have the knowledge, training, or even authorization to speak on. They all agree that for her to try and speak over her physician without knowing the whole story is incredibly shortsighted.
Stories like this have been rare, but Vaccaro could prove to be encouraging to other judges in similar cases. This is one instance where the state’s rights and patient’s medical care need to trump her reefer madness mindset.