The driving force behind cannabis legal reform is cases like this one. A 60-year old disabled veteran is spending five (5) years behind bars for possession of marijuana. He used cannabis to help manage his health symptoms.
The United States has global attention for being a world leader in an unfavorable category. America has an average of 754 incarcerated citizens per 100,000 population. How many people are in jail right now? A report from the Prison Policy Initiative “Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2020” stated that there are almost 2.3 million people currently incarcerated across the country, in 1,833 state prisons. That is more incarcerated Americans than the populations of Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Alaska, and Vermont combined.
How Many Americans Incarcerated on Marijuana Charges?
The overcriminalization of non-violent drug charges for personal use is a factor. About 1 million arrests occur annually, and approximately 450,000 Americans are incarcerated for drug-related charges. But how many of those charges are cannabis-related?
The 2015 report from the U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs Bureau of Justice Statistics broke down drug convictions by the type of controlled substance.
Powder cocaine 24,012 (25.8%)
Crack cocaine 26,409,28.4 (28.4%)
Heroin 5,800 (6.2%)
Marijuana 11,533 (12%)
Methamphetamine 21,999 (23.7%)
Other 3,257 (3.5%)
The fact that life-threatening and highly-addictive drugs like Heroin and Methamphetamines are in the same category as cannabis is strange. A legislative case of “guilt by association” where global organizations like the WHO state that cannabis has is scheduled incorrectly.
Cannabis is kind of the “odd man out” when it comes to controlled substances. While more than 600,000 Americans visit emergency rooms because of overdose from Schedule 1 drugs, there have been no overdose instances where marijuana was the singular drug in the incident. The same cannot be said for other recreational drugs that provide no wellness benefit, and life-threatening outcomes.
The 2016 Arrest of Veteran Sean Worsley for Possession of MMJ in Alabama
Sean Worsley is a disabled black veteran. He served as an American soldier in the Iraq war and suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI) and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder PTSD. Worsley also sustained an injury to his back, which caused daily chronic pain for the 33-year-old veteran.
The Veteran and his wife Eboni were on a trip by car and had visited family in Mississippi. They were en route to North Carolina to visit his relatives, and they stopped for gas in Pickens County, Alabama. He was traveling with prescription pain medications and medical marijuana which he had purchased with his card in his home state of Arizona. Medical marijuana was legalized in 2011 in Arizona.
Why The Vehicle Was Searched
The couple was road-tripping and on vacation. A police officer approached the couple at a gas station and indicated that their “music was too loud” in violation of the town noise ordinance. The officer also reported he “smelled marijuana.” Medical marijuana is not legalized in Alabama.
As the officer searched the Veteran’s vehicle, Sean indicated that he was a registered medical marijuana patient in Arizona. And he offered to show his MMJ card. He also explained his health conditions, and that the family road trip was difficult because of the chronic back pain he endured.
Upon search of the vehicle, the officer also found:
A cannabis pipe
An unopened 6-pack of beer
An unopened bottle of vodka
Fresh venison meat (a gift for his family) in a cooler
Prescription pain medications (stored in another bottle)
Both Sean Worsely and his wife Eboni were charged and spent six days in jail. They paid a fine and a fee to release their vehicle from impound. Then they had to pay extra to professionally clean the car, as the venison had spoiled in their vehicle.
The couple were unable to secure housing after the legal charge and moved from Arizona to rent a Nevada house. They were then called after a year to appear quickly for their charges in Alabama, or risk losing their bond. Sean Worsely claims the prosecutor threatened to charge his wife if Worsely did not sign a plea agreement. Worsely was sentenced to five years in prison for the charge, but charges were reduced against his wife. Eboni is a certified medical assistant who works with traumatized children.
The Fallout of the Medical Cannabis Arrest in Alabama for the Veteran Family
Financial hardship followed after court fees, and other legal expenses began to pile up. Eboni lost the ability to work given the outcome of the legal charge on record. Veteran’s Affairs refused to provide healthcare services to Sean Worsely because of the cannabis charge.
When Sean was financially unable to travel back to Alabama for a court date, the state issued a fugitive warrant. That canceled his VA benefits, and his wife no longer had healthcare insurance.
What Happened After The Arrest?
At this point, the Worsley’s were sleeping in their car, and sometimes staying with relatives. They were unable to afford or qualify to rent an apartment. The snowball effect of low to no income for the Worsley’s continued to complicate their legal problems:
The couple started taking temporary jobs and side-gigs to try to support themselves.
Eboni Worsley developed a severe heart condition. The couple, however, had lost healthcare coverage. Sean Worsley had to stop working to care for his wife.
With little money, Sean Worsley allowed his medical marijuana certification to lapse. He could not afford the renewal fee. He was subsequently pulled over by police and now faced a second charge of cannabis possession for personal use.
Pickens County, Alabama, ordered the extradition of Sean Worsley for his hearing. The court-ordered extradition fee was over $4,300.00, which compounded the $3,800.00+ charges that had already been accrued by the couple.
On April 28, 2020, Sean Worsley was sentenced to 60 months in the custody of the Alabama Department of Corrections. Serving his sentence was delayed by the reluctance of correctional institutions to admit non-violent offenders during the Covid-19 pandemic. He served his time in the Pickens County Jail, waiting for transport to an Alabama federal prison.
Alabama Speaker of the House Pays $160K and Serves No Time for Multiple Drug Felonies
When we talk about bias against POC (people of color) in the American criminal justice system, few comparisons are blatant. Alabama Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard was also charged in 2016. But not with marijuana possession. He did not serve any time for his charges.
House Speaker Mike Hubbard faced 12 ethics charges, six of which remained after review by Alabama’s highest court. The charges include allegations of money laundering, misappropriation of state and party funds. But HS Mike Hubbard was able to pay a $160,000 fine to the state, and seemingly expedite his charges.
Alabama Has Reformed Cannabis Charges and Penalties
State Senator Cam Ward (R-Alabaster) is the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Ward has made statements about the Worsely case indicating that the charges “do not make sense” and are not in line with cannabis justice reform and penalties in the state.
“This is an anomaly. This is not the norm,” Ward said. “Most police departments in Alabama do not arrest people anymore solely for marijuana possession.”
Ward furthered that a marijuana possession is a Class D offense in Alabama under the new sentencing reform package that passed the Alabama Legislature in 2016. Class D offenses in Alabama do not include sentencing for prison time.
Gordo Officer Determined Cannabis Was Not For Medical Use
The Gordo Alabama arresting police officer determined that the Veteran’s drugs were not for “medical” or “personal use” and implied criminal intent and possible distribution. A charge not supported by the fact that Worsely was traveling with an amount of cannabis that falls within the legal definition of personal use. The arresting officer is no longer with the Gordo police department.
Worsley, a Gulf War Veteran, was charged in the period of legal reform transition. The Alabama Senate has passed medical marijuana bills (sponsored by Sen. Time Melson) in 2019 and 2020. The bill has yet to come before the Alabama House of Representatives for a vote, delayed in 2020 by the legal shutdown because of the Covid-19 pandemic. It was approved in March 2020. Alabama SB 165 (when passed) will establish the state Medical Cannabis Commission.
The new law will allow patients to be registered in the program and begin licensing cultivators and retail dispensaries. One of the qualifying conditions already approved for the new Alabama medical marijuana program will be post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The primary diagnosis that Sean Worsely used medical cannabis for.