Vet faces five years for medical marijuana in Alabama

Posted on July 17th, 2020 by Global Ganja Report and tagged , , , , , , , , .

Sean WorsleyAmid national outrage over racial injustice, a Black disabled vet was sentenced to five years for cannabis that he uses medicinally in Alabama. A medical marijuana bill in the state seemed likely to pass this year, but was aborted when the legislature was shut down by the COVID-19 crisis. Alabama continues to have some of the harshest cannabis laws in the country.

For those who recall Alabama's status as a national pariah during the Civil Rights era, there is a disturbing sense of an 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 won 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 an Alabama prison was purchased legally under the medical marijuana program in Arizona, where he lived. At the moment, the COVID-19 emergency is the only thing that has put off his incarceration.

The story was broken by the local Alabama Political Reporter but has received some wider coverage, including a write-up in the Washington Post on July 14. Worsley and his wife, Eboni, were arrested in August 2016, while on a trip back east from their Arizona home to visit family. They'd already visited Eboni's family in Mississippi and were on their way to North Carolina to see Sean's. Stopping 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—technically a violation, as Pickens is a dry county. Both Sean and Eboni were arrested.

Sean was charged with marijuana possession—and it was jacked 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 booze 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 venison they had been 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 last August 2019, but in order to save money he had failed to pay the $250 fee to renew his Arizona medical marijuana card. In a traffic stop in Arizona this year, he was found to be in possession of cannabis without a valid medical marijuana card, and arrested. 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." 

A campaign for clemency for Worsley has been launched by the Last Prisoner Project. The family also has a GoFundMe page to raise money for his legal fight.

Medical marijuana on hold  
If COVID-19 has held up the start of Sean Worsley's prison term, it has unfortunately also meant defeat for 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 (actually sponsored by a 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 decrim 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.

Cross-post to Cannabis Now

Image via Alabama Appleseed  

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