How could a disabled US veteran, legally prescribed medical marijuana in one state be facing five years imprisonment in another? The experience of Sean Worsley, the veteran at the heart of this case, places America’s patchwork cannabis laws under a critical light. Furthermore, this case highlights the true injustices of systemic racism in America’s legal system.
If any circumstances of his arrest are different, Worsley may have simply faced a slap on the wrist. But instead, at every turn, he has faced racism and the cruelest application of the law. His case serves as a blatant reminder about the risk many medical marijuana patients face on a daily basis, especially BIPOC.
With the system failing Worsley at every turn, and an appeal backlogged in the courts, the media is finally paying attention to this Purple Heart recipient’s plight. Anyone enraged by the mounting injustices Worlsey has faced since his initial arrest is encouraged to sign the petition and donate to his legal fees. But first, his story.
The Wrong Gas Station, at the Wrong Time in Tuscaloosa, Alabama
In 2016, Worsley and his wife Eboni were driving through Tuscaloosa, Alabama. As Arizona residents, they had just come from visiting her family in Mississippi and were headed to North Carolina to spend time with his. As they passed through Tuscaloosa at 11 p.m., they stopped for gas.
If they had stopped in any other gas station, or any other Alabama county that night, Worsley’s would have never ended up facing five years in an Alabama prison. But, stopping at this specific gas station, and playing music a bit too loud, earned the attention of Officer Carl Abramo, of the Gordo Police Department.
Abramo noted in his police report filed five days after the fact that he had, “observed a Black male get out of the passenger side vehicle. They were pulled up at a pump and the Black male began playing air guitar, dancing, and shaking his head. He was laughing and joking around and looking at the driver while doing all this.” Tuscaloosa has a local ordinance against loud music, and according to Abramo’s perception, Worsley’s music broke local laws.
Worsley and his wife quickly turned down the music, but not before Abramo decided he smelled marijuana. As a reminder, Alabama has some of the harshest marijuana legislation in the country. Even in 2020, medical marijuana legislation is stagnated, and the state has fallen behind most other states in the country.
Legal Medical Marijuana For Traumatic Brain Injury and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
As Worsley has since explained, he allowed Abramo to search his car, knowing that his legally prescribed medical cannabis was on the back seat. After all, he was a valid medical cannabis patient in Arizona, a state with an established program since 2011.
Worsley, a disabled veteran, relied on medical cannabis to treat his traumatic brain injury (TBI) and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which he sustained while serving in Iraq. As per his Veterans Affairs (VA) disability report indicated, his injuries left him with such severe cognitive impairment and mental health issues, that he required a caregiver. Eboni became her husband’s full-time caregiver to assist him with “planning and organizing, safety risks, sleep regulation, and recent memory, and “total assistance” with self-regulation.”
The VA acknowledged in Worsley’s 2015 disability report that he failed to respond to most treatments. And although the VA is unable to prescribe or recommend medical cannabis due to federal restrictions, they typically tolerate it based on the growing scientific support for conditions like PTSD and pain. Worsley, a resident of Arizona, applied for and received a medical marijuana card for relief from PTSD, depression, nightmares, and back and shoulder pain.
Flash-forward to 2016, to a gas station in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, Abramo discovered the medical marijuana, but refused to examine Worlsey’s medical marijuana card issued in Arizona, detailing in the police report, “I explained to him that Alabama did not have medical marijuana. I then placed the suspect in hand cuffs [sic].” Unfortunately, even though Worsley had legally obtained the product with a prescription, these laws didn’t apply to Alabama.
Systemic Racism Led to a Laundry List of Unjust Charges
Abramo discovered several other items in the car, all expanded into a laundry list of questionable charges. For example, he reported finding a six-pack of beer and a bottle of vodka—normally uncontroversial items, except in Pickens County. Picken was a partially dry county in 2016. Thus, Abramo considered them to be contraband.
The arresting officer also found a bottle of Eboni’s prescription pills, no longer in the original container. Adding to the list of injustices in the case, Abramo considered it another felony.
Each of these charges, usually a misdemeanor at best, Abramo applied to the full letter of the law. If the Black Lives Matter movement has made abundantly clear over the last 30 days, there are serious issues of systemic racism in America. It leads one to wonder what would have happened if Worsley had been a disabled White veteran in the same predicament.
The statistics on arrests in Alabama paint a clear picture of systemic racism within the criminal justice system. According to a damning Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice report, “In 2016, the year the Worsleys were arrested, Black people were more than four times as likely as white people to be arrested for marijuana in Alabama.”
Let’s explore the application of the law in Worsley’s case. First, if a white man had played loud music, would Abramo have done anything more than ask to turn it down? Would it have led to the search of his car, and subsequent charges for medical marijuana?
Second, would a white man have been charged with more than just possession of cannabis? Abramo charged Worsley with a felony, as he believed the medical marijuana was for “other than personal use.”
Third, how did race impact the decision to charge for contraband liquor? As Alabama Appleseed detailed, this local ordinance is rarely applied, typically, “only enforced against violators who are profiting from its sale.”
Finally, how would Eboni’s supposed felony for her prescription drugs have played out if race wasn’t a factor? Altogether, the application of law, in this case, seems highly suspect.
And 2016 Was Just the Beginning
Following their arrest, Worsley and his wife spent six days in jail, eventually released on bond and paying $400 to get their car out of impound. This was the beginning of their long entanglement with a problematic legal system.
These felony charges followed them into Arizona, where they eventually lost housing and found it challenging to obtain employment. They moved to Nevada, seeking a fresh start. Unfortunately, a year later, that fresh start crumbled as the judge presiding of his bond in Alabama revoked all bonds. Wolsey and Eboni borrowed money to urgently travel back to Alabama in time to secure the bond, and meet the court date.
On arrival, Eboni and her husband were put into separate rooms. Given Worlsey’s cognitive disability, Eboni tried to explain the need for legal representation to help Worsley process and make an informed decision.
As Eboni explained to Alabama Appleseed, that when she pressed to get her husband a legal guardian (or even allow her to assist), “They said no, and they literally locked me in a room separate from him.” Without an advocate, Worlsey signed a plea deal, which included 60 months of probation, mandatory drug treatment, plus thousands of dollars in fines and court costs.
Eboni stated, “And his conversation with me is that 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. He said because of that, he just signed it.”
Excessive and Unprecedented Application of Alabama Law
What followed was a complicated series of events. For starters, the courts transferred the probation to Arizona, a state in which they no longer lived. They rushed to move their belongings back to the Grand Canyon State but based on rapidly depleting funds, they could only secure a short-term rental. According to their probation officer, this did not count as a fixed permanent address under the probation rules.
In the years since 2016, the Worsley’s felony charges continued to haunt their financial situation. Eboni, previously the family’s main source of income, has been denied employment time and time again because of her status in Alabama. The Worsley’s have experienced several prolonged periods of homelessness.
In 2018, Worsley attempted to complete another requirement of his probation – the drug treatment. He applied for placement in drug treatment through VA, but they denied it. The VA stated, “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 the need for substance abuse treatment.” In Alabamas eyes, of course, this was yet another mark against him.
This is one small example of a system stacked against a Black disabled veteran. Although Worsley and Eboni did their best to follow the rules of probation, the legal system worked against them.
A System Built to Break A Disabled Veteran and His Family
Eventually, the Worsley’s ongoing financial struggles led to losing their vehicle, a missed notice from the Alabama court system, and the inability to pay the $250 renewal on his expired marijuana card. Unbeknownst to Worsley, the Pickens County Supervision Program ended his probation and Alabama issued a fugitive warrant for his arrest, citing his failure to pay fees, and failure to appear in court.
A minor traffic infraction in early 2020 led officers to discover medical marijuana without a valid medical card. To the surprise of even the Arizona police department, Alabama requested for Worsleys’ extradition. On April 28, an Alabama judge sentenced Worsley to five years in state prison.
A Prison System Deemed Cruel and Unusual Punishment
Alabama’s prison system for men has been ruled in violation of the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, and the US District Attorney’s office has deemed the mental health support Worlsey will receive as “horrendously inadequate.” This is no place for a man who served his country for 14 months overseas and received an honorable discharge for his injuries. His only crime was medication for these injuries.
But it gets worse. According to the Alabama Political Reporter, out of more than 23,000 state prisoners in Alabama, only 70 are there for marijuana-related charges. Furthermore, these are all charges for trafficking “whole truckload, semi-truckloads” of marijuana. Worsley was only transporting his medicine.
Worsley has been in Pickens County Jail since his extradition. Although his mother has funded an appeal, he will head to state prison in the coming weeks.
How do you wrap up a story with so many layers of injustice? Worsley’s words are a compelling summary of the past few years. As he told Alabama Appleseed, “I feel like I’m being thrown away by a country I went and served for. I feel like I lost parts of me in Iraq, parts of my spirit and soul that I can’t ever get back.”
How You Can Help Make a Difference in This Case
A tsunami of recent national news coverage has helped elevate Worsley’s cause to the attention of people in power. But if you feel equally as enraged about his unjust treatment, what can you do?
You can sign the “Get justice for Sean and Eboni Worsley” petition started on Change.org. At the time of writing, thousands had already made their voice heard, and it was already making a difference. Signing takes only seconds and helps get the story in front of the media, politicians, and other people in power.
Second, for those who have the financial means, Eboni has asked the public to help support Worlsey’s appeal process. Even small donations help support the appeal. Head over to the Go Fund Me page to send your support.
Only public pressure on the powers that be will change the outcome of this criminal injustice case. Worsley needs your help.