A judge in Pinellas County, Florida suggested to a 21-year-old defendant to look into Xanax to treat her anxiety instead of medical cannabis.
The defendant was in court for a DUI charge in January 2023 when judge Dorothy Vaccaro stated that since she probably was not suffering from cancer or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety was not a sufficient reason for her to use cannabis as a treatment (1,2). Vaccaro also stated multiple times to the 21-year-old that she was too young to use it (1). She also ordered the defendant to undergo a drug screening, abstain from using medical cannabis during her probation, and threatened to have her arrested without bond if she continued to do so (1).
“Anxiety can be done a different way, through alprazolam, right? Xanax,” the judge said to the defendant while also suggesting that the defendant visit a primary care physician (1). She would reconsider her order, she added, if a physician wrote a letter of recommendation for the medical cannabis (1).
“It is presumptuous, inappropriate, and dangerous for a judge to ‘play doctor’ in cases like these. They can truly harm someone as they are not medically trained,” said Dr. Peter Grinspoon, primary care physician and cannabis specialist (1). “Medical cannabis is far safer than alprazolam, which is far more addictive, and which has a life-threatening withdrawal syndrome, and which is thought to contribute to dementia risk, as well as falls and balance problems. Cannabis generally has milder side effects and is considered safer.”
Another physician pointed out that Xanax can be fatal when combined with alcohol and that the defendant was in court for driving under the influence (1).
A spokesperson for the 6th Judicial Circuit stated anxiety is not included as a qualifying condition for medical cannabis in Florida and that the prescription medication alternatives were just suggestions from the judge to the defendant (1). “She didn’t order the defendant to take those drugs,” Stephen Thompson wrote in a statement (1).
Two law professors commented on the case, noting that judges are prohibited from age discrimination against defendants, and stating that the judge was out of line deciding if the defendant was too young for a medication (1).
Medical cannabis has been legal in Florida since 2016 and qualifying conditions include cancer and PTSD (1).