For those who recall Alabama’s status during the Civil Rights era, there is a disturbing sense of a historical cycle coming around again. With the country suddenly focused on a long-overdue reckoning with racial justice, a particularly egregious case from the Deep South state has made national headlines, and cannabis is at the heart of it.
The Sean Worsley Case
Sean Worsley is an African American veteran who served in Iraq and won a Purple Heart for wounds sustained in combat. A traumatic brain injury and other wounds have left him with chronic pain that he treats with cannabis. He also uses the herb for post-traumatic stress — to calm his nightmares. The modest few grams (about two or three joints worth) that may land him in Alabama prison were purchased legally under the medical marijuana program in Arizona, where he lived. Currently, the COVID-19 emergency is the only thing stalling his incarceration.
Back in August of 2016, Worsley and his wife Eboni were arrested on a family road trip from Arizona to Mississippi and North Carolina. After visiting Eboni’s family in Mississippi, the couple headed east to North Carolina. Their stop for gas in Alabama’s Pickens County proved to be a life changing error.
A local police officer in the town of Gordo approached the Worsleys at the gas station, telling them their music was too loud, supposedly a violation of the town’s noise ordinance. In the wry comment of progressive advocacy group Alabama Appleseed, Worsley was accosted for “playing air guitar while black.”
The officer asked if he could search the vehicle, and the Worsleys consented, believing they had broken no laws. They were apparently unaware that cannabis is still illegal in Alabama even if purchased legally in another state. The small stash was found, along with a scale, grinder, rolling papers and a pipe.
The officer also found some pain pills, for which Eboni had a prescription. But the pills weren’t in the original bottle, which was also deemed a crime. Some unopened bottles of alcohol were also found — a violation, as Pickens is a dry county. Both Sean and Eboni were arrested.
Sean was charged with marijuana possession—and it was bumped up to a felony because (despite the small quantity) it was deemed for “other than personal use” on the basis of the scale. Eboni was charged on the pill and liquor violations.
After the Worsleys were released on bond, they had to pay an additional $400 to get their car out of impound—and then had to have it professionally cleaned, because the venison they were bringing for Sean’s family in North Carolina went bad.
Back in Arizona, the couple fell on hard times. Sean lost his VA benefits after failing to appear for a court date back in Pickens County. Then, about a year after the bust, the Pickens County judge suddenly revoked bonds in all the cases he was hearing. Sean and Eboni had to borrow money to rush back to Alabama, under pain of not getting the bond refunded—and being charged with failing to appear in court.
Sean was able to avoid prison time in a plea agreement that included a four-figure fine and five years of probation, as well as drug treatment. The charges against Eboni were dropped.
Sean’s VA benefits were restored in August 2019, but in order to save money, he had failed to pay the $250 renewal fee for his Arizona medical marijuana card. In a traffic stop in Arizona this year, he was arrested for possession of cannabis without a valid medical marijuana card. Now he was determined to be in violation of probation, and Pickens County demanded that he be extradited back to Alabama.
On April 28, the Pickens County judge sentenced Sean Worsley to five years in prison. He would already be serving that time if not for the fact that new sentences are temporarily on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic. On July 16, a 13th Alabama inmate died after testing positive for the novel coronavirus, according to Alabama Political Report.
Alabama’s prisons, in addition to being chronically overcrowded, are plagued by violence.
But Sean is not free. He’s being held at the Pickens County jail until he can start formally serving his sentence. And he is not being allowed release while the sentence is on appeal.
“I feel like I’m being thrown away by a country I went and served for,” Sean wrote in a letter to Alabama Appleseed. “I feel like I lost parts of me in Iraq, parts of my spirit and soul that I can’t ever get back.”
Medical Marijuana on Hold
While COVID-19 is holding up the start of Sean Worsley’s prison term, the health crisis also defeated an effort to finally pass a medical marijuana law in Alabama this year.
On March 13, the Alabama Senate approved SB 165—known as the Compassion Act—by a vote of 22-11. The Compassion Act, sponsored by Republican, Sen. Tim Melson, would allow doctors to recommend cannabis and establish a system of licensed dispensaries. It was expected to pass in the House.
But just days after the bill passed in the Senate, Alabama’s legislative session was cut short by the health emergency. It never went to a House vote. This means it is effectively dead for this year, The Hill reports.
A similar bill made it through the Senate last year, but died in the House, WBHM public radio noted.
States the Marijuana Policy Project: “Alabama’s lack of medical marijuana protections is becoming more and more of an outlier. Thirty-three states, including Florida, Louisiana, and Arkansas, allow medical cannabis, and Mississippi voters will get to decide the issue directly in November. Polling shows 75% of Alabama voters support medical cannabis. But because Alabama doesn’t have a citizen initiative process, the only way to bring a compassionate law to the state is for state lawmakers to pass a bill.”
Last year, Alabama’s Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously approved a decriminalization bill that would have dropped the penalty for possession of an ounce or less to a fine of up to $250. But the House version died in committee, and the full Senate did not vote on the bill. This year, Sen. Bobby Singleton introduced a similar decriminalization bill, but it did not even clear committee before the legislature’s early adjournment.
Alabama continues to have some of the harshest cannabis laws in the United States.
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