Systemic racism and draconian cannabis laws led to unjust charges for a medical cannabis patient in Alabama.
Feature Image Via The Washington Post
In 2016, Sean Worsley and his wife Eboni were traveling through Alabama on route to see family. Little did Worsley know that he and his wife’s last-minute decision to stop for gas in a small rural town would change their lives. However, it quickly became a traumatic and life-altering encounter with the American justice system. Stemming from that original run-in, a judge would later hand Worsley a five-year sentence for legally prescribed medical cannabis. As a Black, disabled, veteran, Worsley’s case is a heart-wrenching look at America’s entrenched systemic racism and problematic patchwork of cannabis regulations.
Worsley’s Original Crime? Playing Loud Music While Black
Worsley’s trauma begins with a road trip. Late one night in 2016, he and Eboni were driving through the state of Alabama. Both Arizona residents, they would regularly enjoy visits with family across the Southern states, culminating in a visit to Worsley’s mother in North Carolina.
They stopped for gas in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, around 11 p.m., and Worsley had the radio loud. He danced around while fueling up. At the same time, Officer Carl Abramo, of the Gordo Police Department, looked on and was not pleased with their arrival. As it turns out, Tuscaloosa and the local country have many antiquated rules, including ones against loud music.
Abramo approached Worsley, advising him of the local ordinance against loud music, and as per the report, Worsley quickly turned down the music at the officer’s request.
But Abramo didn’t stop there. During the initial interaction, Abramo decided he smelled cannabis and asked Worsley about his suspicions. As a disabled veteran living in Arizona at the time, Worsley had a legal prescription for medical cannabis and advised the officer about it. He even offered to show him his cannabis prescription card, but Abramo refused. In the report, filed five days later, Abramo detailed, “I explained to him that Alabama did not have medical marijuana. I then placed the suspect in handcuffs.”
The Backstory: Honorable Discharge, Ongoing Disabilities, and Medical Cannabis
How did Worsley end up traveling through Alabama with his medical cannabis prescription in the back seat? As he later stated, he assumed his legal prescription from Arizona was legal elsewhere.
Worsley, an Iraq war veteran, returned from his deployment with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and a traumatic brain injury (TBI) following an Improvised Explosive Device explosion. He relied on cannabis to help him keep the symptoms under control.
Worsley suffered extreme injury, both mental and physical, during his deployment. Due to the IED explosion, his TBI made him a “different person.” As the report by Alabama Appleseed explained, “The young soldier who used to work hard and get things done quickly became unreliable. He zoned out in the middle of work. He stopped taking care of himself. His personal hygiene declined.” In 2008, struggling with mental health and the lingering ramifications of his TBI, the army honorably discharged Worsley. They eventually awarded him the Purple Heart for his injuries during service.
Once home, Worsley worked closely with Veterans Affairs (VA) on his recovery. The combination of TBI with PTSD meant Worsley suffered from depression, chronic pain, sleep disturbances, nightmares, and more. He also struggled with cognitive functions like short term memory, impulsivity, and self-regulation. His disabilities, resistant to therapeutic and pharmaceutical treatments, eventually led to the VA designating his wife, Eboni, as his full-time caregiver. In 2015, the VA determined Worsley required “maximum assistance” and was utterly dependent on his caregiver to help with self-regulation, planning, organizing, and managing safety risks.
Medical Cannabis Card From Arizona
In 2011, Worsley received a medical cannabis card from Arizona to help treat his laundry list of conditions. He is one of nearly two million veterans that use cannabis, with as many as forty-one percent reporting use for medicinal purposes. Although not prescribed through the VA’s healthcare system, due to strict federal scheduling, the VA’s office sometimes tolerates cannabis consumption because of the evidence it can help with PTSD and other issues common among veterans.
At the time of his arrest, a majority of states had medical cannabis programs in place. By 2020 there are now a total of thirty-four. Unfortunately, Alabama is still not one of them.
Years of Injustice At the Hands of the American Legal System
Worsley misunderstood the legalities of cannabis in Alabama, but that was only the start of his troubles. His legally prescribed medical cannabis landed him a felony charge, typically only given for those seeking to traffic narcotics (as one politician later said, “by the truckload”).
Officers also found a six-pack of beer and a bottle of vodka in the back seat. These brought further charges, because it turns out, Tuscaloosa is in a dry county. Eboni’s prescription pills (Heart Medication), tucked in a different bottle for the trip, also landed her a felony charge.
Charged to the Fullest Extent of The Law
Every single charge was dolled out to the fullest extent of the law, demonstrating a text-book example of the entrenched systemic racism of the American justice system. But the initial arrest was only the beginning.
The Worsleys spent six days in jail before their release on bond. After paying to have their car taken out of impound, they returned to Arizona, both charged with felonies. As charged felons, the Worsleys found it nearly impossible to find meaningful employment, which made it almost impossible to find stable housing. Unsurprisingly, with the cards stacked against them, they often found themselves homeless over the proceeding years, living out of their car.
In 2017, the Alabama judge presiding over their case called in all bonds, including those of the Worsleys. Despite having no financial resources, the couple rushed back to Alabama to avoid additional charges for missing a court date. On arrival, Sean and Eboni were separated and re-interrogated in separate rooms. Eboni desperately tried to explain to the court that her husband was disabled and required a full-time caregiver. Worsley required an advocate in court because of his cognitive disability, but the court refused to grant one.
Refused a Proper Advocate
Instead, as Eboni reported to Alabama Appleseed, “They told him that if he didn’t sign the plea agreement that we would have to stay incarcerated until December and that they would charge me with the same charges as they charged him.” Trying to save his wife, Worsley signed the agreement and ended up with 60 months of probation, plus strict requirements for drug rehab, and thousands of dollars in fines.
The Worsleys returned back to Arizona even further in debt to the courts of Alabama. Their felony charges continued to haunt them. They struggled to find employment, stable housing, and cover their cost of living. Periods of homelessness and continued financial hardship meant Worsley could no longer afford the renewal costs for his medical cannabis prescription. Without a stable way to receive them, they also missed notifications from the Alabama court system.
Still, the Worsleys continued to the best of their ability to comply with the probation requirements. At one point, their probation officer advised them that their month-to-month rental (which was the only housing open to them) didn’t qualify as permanent housing, a requirement of their probation. At another point, when Worsley reached out to the VA’s office for a referral for drug rehab, the office rejected him. In their opinion, “Mr. Worsley reports smoking Cannabis for medical purposes and has legal documentation to support his use and therefore does not meet criteria for a substance use disorder or meet need for substance abuse treatment.”
Sentenced to 5 Years in Prison for Medical Cannabis
Often homeless, and with no fixed address, Worsley eventually missed a court date with the Pickens County Supervision Program. Subsequently, it issued a warrant for his arrest. The pair were struggling with housing, income, and Eboni’s ongoing heart condition (which required surgery). Therefore, the Worsleys were none-the-wiser to this missed notice and subsequent warrant.
But when Worsley was pulled over on what was supposedly a routine traffic stop (although this itself is often a case of systemic racism, or “driving while Black”), the warrant caught up with him. The Arizona officers found unprescribed cannabis in his car (remember he lost his card due to financial hardship). When they ran his details they discovered the Alabama warrant. In short order, Alabama requested his extradition, and he has been in Pickens County jail since early 2020. On April 28, 2020, an Alabama judge revoked Worsley’s probation. The judge sentenced him to a further 60 months in state prison.
If you rewind the tape of this traumatic ordeal to the very beginning, it all started on a road trip through Alabama and playing music a little too loud. His family is launching an appeal. But, Worsley will likely be sent to state prison before the appeal process begins.
A Perfect Storm: Systemic Racism and Harsh Cannabis Laws in Alabama
According to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) extensive reporting, Alabama arrests four times as many Black people as white people for cannabis. Even more discriminatory, Black people were five times more likely to get a felony charge.
As Worsley quickly found out, criminal charges in Alabama are exorbitantly expensive. As per the last report, Worsley owes at least eight thousand dollars to the courts. Why? Because the court says so. For example, he was extradited to Alabama, but couldn’t afford it. The courts charged him thousands of dollars for the transport. As the SPLC explains, “Marijuana laws are a gateway to harsh punishment,” which means, “many have lost cars, cash or other property in civil asset forfeiture cases tied to a marijuana offense.”
State prisons in Alabama are wholly inadequate. The US Department of Justice has declared them in violation of the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. Plus, in Worsley’s situation – being a disabled veteran with a serious mental health condition, it is much more dire. As a US District Judge ruled, the Alabama state prison’s mental health services are “horrendously inadequate.”
While Black people continue to receive the majority of cannabis-related charges, justice in Alabama is descriminatory and unjust. Worse, Blacks are more likely to get felony charges. Therefore, they are more likely to suffer harsh consequences, and thus perfectly represent systemic racism – a policy on clear display in the state’s justice system.
Systemic Racism and Marijuana Persecutions
Police officers, probation officers, and other people within the criminal justice system had choices in the Worsley’s story. When they did however, they chose to deliver the hardest penalties to the Worsleys.
So – would a white disabled veteran have been charged with a felony trafficking charge for medical cannabis? Moreover, would a white veteran be accused of selling liquor in a dry county? Would the Worsleys have been able to secure housing and employment if they had been white? There are dozens of instances in Worsleys’ case suggesting that Sean should not have received the harshest punishment – or that he wouldn’t have, had the colour of his skin been different.
How Can You Help Sean Worsley in His Fight for Justice?
America’s legacy of cannabis prosecutions and systemic racism is a story of injustice. But the Worsleys’ story is especially poignant. At every turn, the justice system has failed to uphold the values of the constitution. It also failed its commitment to human rights. America is a signatory to the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights. The declaration says, “All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law.” It’s hard to see how the US justice system lives up to this for Sean Worsley.
But Worsley’s fight isn’t over. Several organizations have taken up the cause, including the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law & Justice and The Last Prisoner Project. Worsley’s family is also asking the public to sign the petition on Change.org to get his case before politicians at the state and national levels. For those with the financial means, Eboni has also launched a Go Fund Me page seeking donations to help pay for the legal costs associated with the appeal.
With enough pressure from an enraged public, the powers that be may assess Worsley’s case under fair circumstances. As a Black disabled veteran, awarded the Purple Heart, he deserves none of the traumas of the last five years.