It’s a classic story and cautionary tale passed down by countless parents and loved ones, both African-American and otherwise: a simple traffic stop somewhere down south, a little something in your car that shouldn’t be there, and your own ticket to a hell of some lawman’s creation.
In this case, the victim is a black disabled US military veteran whose only crime was having a small amount of medical marijuana in his car while visiting relatives down South. By the time the criminal justice system in “the Heart of Dixie” was done with Sean Worsley and his wife Eboni, they were homeless, out of work, stricken of Sean’s VA benefits, and Sean was in the Pickens County jail, awaiting transport to state prison to serve a 60-month sentence.
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All because of a small amount of medical marijuana the Iraq War Vet was legally prescribed in his home state of Arizona.
The story began in August 2016, when the couple stopped for gas in Gordo, Alabama after they had passed through Mississippi on the way to North Carolina to visit Eboni’s family. According to the Alabama Political Reporter, a police officer approached the couple at the gas station and told them that their music was violating a local noise ordinance and asked to search the vehicle. The couple agreed, apparently believing that the medical marijuana Sean, 33, had been legally prescribed in Arizona was legal in Alabama.
Sean told the officer that he was an Iraq war vet who received medical marijuana as a result of a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder he suffered in the war. According to the Alabama Reporter, Worsley uses medical cannabis to calm his nightmares and soothe his back pain and has been a legal Arizona medical marijuana patient since 2011.
This does not matter in Alabama, where medical marijuana is still not legal, and according to the arrest report, the police officer said “I explained to him that Alabama did not have medical marijuana. I then placed the suspect in handcuffs.”
This was the moment that the nightmare that would upend the couple’s life began.
In the backseat, the arresting officer found some prescription pain pills of Eboni’s which were not in their original bottle, which the officer said constituted a felony. Both Eboni and Sean were arrested and spent six days in jail — but the state of Alabama was just getting started.
They were released on bond and paid $400 to get their car out of an impound lot. When they returned to Arizona, their felony charges made it hard to find work and they lost their housing and eventually moved to Nevada. A year later, the presiding judge revoked bail on all of the cases he managed, meaning that the couple would be charged with failing to appear in court if they didn’t return to Alabama almost immediately.
They borrowed money and went back to Alabama. Once they arrived at the court, they were taken to separate rooms. Eboni explained that Sean was disabled with serious cognitive issues and needed a guardian to help him understand the process and ensure he made an informed decision. But nobody cared. When they were reunited, Sean told Eboni that he signed a plea agreement with prosecutors because otherwise, they would both have to stay incarcerated for several months.
The plea agreement included 60 months of probation plus drug counseling — in Arizona. The couple had to then move back to Arizona (remember, they lived in Nevada now), where a probation officer told them their monthly rental was not a permanent address, so they were told to return to Alabama. In the meantime, the felony charge cost Eboni — a certified nursing assistant — her job working with traumatized children, as well as her clearance to work with sensitive information.
The couple then found themselves temporarily homeless and stripped of Sean’s VA benefits because there was a fugitive warrant for his arrest issued by Alabama after a missed court date. By this time, Eboni’s heart began giving in and she needed surgery. Sean took on extra work to help with her recovery, but they lost their truck after they couldn’t keep up with the payments and eventually lost their home. To make matters worse, Sean was unable to afford the $250 needed to renew his medical marijuana card in Arizona and was arrested by an Arizona cop for possessing medical marijuana without a valid card.
(Keep in mind, this is a disabled military vet who relies on medical marijuana to even function, not some random stoner who just can’t stop getting high.)
That arrest meant he had violated his probation and the Pickens County authorities demanded his extradition, racking up thousands of dollars in transport and other fees that he was required to pay, in addition to the $3,833.40 in fines, fees, and court costs he already owed, according to the Alabama Political Reporter.
60 months in prison
On April 28, 2020, the Pickens County Judge sentenced him to 60 months in prison, and he currently resides in Pickens County jail awaiting transport to state prison, where 5 inmates and Department of Corrections employees have died of COVID-19 in recent months.
Sean’s mother is pursuing an appeal, but her son will have to remain in custody until the case is settled regardless.
In a letter to the criminal justice non-profit Alabama Appleseed, Worsley wrote “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.”
According to Alabama State Senator Cam Ward (R-Alabaster), “this is an anomaly, this is not the norm.” In the Alabama Political Reporter article, Ward said “most police departments in Alabama do not arrest people any more solely for marijuana possession,” and that usually marijuana possession is a class D offense under a 2016 sentencing reform package that he sponsored and which the Alabama legislature passed in 2016.
In 2015, the Medical Marijuana Patient Safe Access Act passed in the state’s Senate Judiciary Committee. The bill would allow patients with approved medical conditions to buy medical marijuana at a limited number of legal dispensaries. The bill did not make it to the Senate floor for debate, but in February, the Compassion Act (Senate Bill 154) was filed at the Alabama State House. The bill, if passed, would allow cannabis for the treatment of 15 health conditions.
For Sean and his family, that much-needed reform will come far too late.
Eboni Worsley has launched a GoFundMe page to collect funds to get Sean out of jail. At the time of writing, almost 600 people have raised $24,562 of the $50,000 goal.