Florida Is a Sunny Place for Shady Medical Marijuana Laws

In 2018, I was a Presenter at a Hillsborough County Bar Association event for a group of judges after Florida passed its limited medical marijuana bill.  During a Q&A following my lecture, several jurists used a collective label for cocaine, heroin, and cannabis … that word being “drugs.”  As a result of bundling cannabis with coke, off to jail you go if you are caught using or possessing marijuana, according to these judges.  Just wait until their granddaughters get arrested by a Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Deputy for possession of marijuana and see if they still feel the same way about their classification of cannabis.  

I share this story because cannabis continues to be met with resistance from judges who preside over the criminal justice system.  For example, earlier this year, Pinellas County Judge Dorothy Vaccaro told a 21-year-old woman that she shouldn’t use medical marijuana, according to the Tampa Bay Times.  When the woman, a defendant in a misdemeanor DUI case, said she uses it to calm her anxiety, Judge Vaccaro, who does not hold a medical license, told her that anxiety wasn’t a sufficient reason to take the “drug.”  There’s that bastardly word again.  Judge Vaccaro advised the woman that she should instead consider Xanax, a drug that is more powerful with widely documented negative side effects. 

There is an ethical issue with a judge recommending medication in the same way it would be problematic for a doctor to give legal advice.  The two are mutually exclusive.  How did we get here?  Why is medical marijuana still an issue in the Sunshine State?  Florida has done a dangerous dance by refusing to legalize adult-use marijuana and severely limiting medical marijuana’s applications.  

Florida’s medical marijuana law, passed in 2016, allows a qualified physician to authorize medical marijuana for patients for a variety of physical and mental conditions.  Currently, doctors must do a physical exam before ordering medical marijuana.  

Florida’s medical marijuana statute specifically provides that those who suffer from the following qualifying medical conditions may obtain a physician certification for the medical use of marijuana: cancer, epilepsy, glaucoma, HIV, AIDS, PTSD, ALS, Crohn’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, MS, “medical conditions of the same kind of class as or comparable to those,” terminal conditions diagnosed by a prescribing physician and chronic nonmalignant pain.

The ballot measure permitting medical cannabis won with 71 percent support.  By 2021, advocates had two separate campaigns to bring full legalization to the ballot in 2022.  But the state Supreme Court killed both measures, stating that they violated the constitution by using “misleading” language.

Pursuant to the statute, Florida residents must be at least 18 years old to obtain a medical marijuana card.  Persons below 18 may use cannabis through their parents or legal guardians who have been assigned as caregivers.

As of this writing, more than 800,000 patients across Florida have been allowed by doctors to take medical cannabis.  Judge Vaccaro, as discussed previously, rejected the defendant’s use of medical marijuana while setting the terms of her probation and suggested a more potent alternative.  Judge Vaccaro ordered a drug test and threatened to arrest the woman without bond if she kept using marijuana.  Judges are granted wide latitude on these issues, which creates a legal gray area for cannabis users and patients.  

Access to medical marijuana is protected under the Florida Constitution since the passage of Amendment 2 was approved in the vast majority of counties beyond the necessary threshold.  What this tells me is that we’ve got a ways to go before marijuana truly goes mainstream in Florida. 

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