The case exposes the cruelty of the Alabama criminal justice system and the unfair responsibility placed on medical marijuana patients.
Sean Worsley, a disabled Black veteran who served in Iraq and was awarded a Purple Heart for his service, received a five-year prison sentence because of a simple mistake: He stopped for gas in Gordo, Alabama. He and his wife, Eboni, were visiting family in the South, hers in Mississippi and his in North Carolina. In the back seat was marijuana, but Sean Worsley didn’t worry. A doctor in Arizona had legally prescribed him the medical cannabis.
He used marijuana to treat his post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury, caused by his service. He had nightmares and back pain, which the cannabis medically treated. He didn’t think he was doing anything wrong.
But a local police officer approached the Worselys when he heard their music and thought it was too loud. Officer Carl Abramo smelled marijuana and asked to search the vehicle. The Worsley allowed it because they believed they had nothing to hide. Abramo, upon discovering the cannabis, informed them otherwise.
“I explained to him that Alabama did not have medical marijuana. I then placed the suspect in hand cuffs,” a police report submitted by Abramo reads.
The arrest took place in 2016 and Worsley received a 60-month sentence for his infraction. The story highlights the daunting pressure placed on medical marijuana patients who have to navigate the confusing world of cannabis legalization, which varies wildly state by state. Alabama Appleseed, a criminal justice organization, first brought national attention to Worsley’s story in a detailed account published online.
“I feel like I’m being thrown away by a country I went and served for,” Worsley wrote in a letter from the Pickens County Jail to Appleseed. “I feel like I lost parts of me in Iraq, parts of my spirit and soul that I can’t ever get back.”
Along with the marijuana prescription bottle, the police officer found a pipe, rolling papers, a bottle of vodka, a six-pack of beer, and pain pills. Eboni Worsley had a prescription for the pills, but they weren’t in their original bottle. This constituted a felony, Abramo said, which he charged Eboni with. Though first-time marijuana offenses typically receive a misdemeanor charge, according to Appleseed, it can become a felony if the charging officer believes the marijuana is for purposes “other than personal use.” Abramo booked Sean Worsely for a class C felony.
The Worsleys spent six nights in jail for the felony charges and were later released on bond. They believed their nightmare over. But a Pickens County judge announced he was renouncing all his bonds about a year later and the couple had to borrow money to return to Alabama. The Worsleys were ushered into separate rooms. Eboni said that Sean’s disability required a legal guardian to help him understand the process and come to an informed decision. Alabama denied the request.
Officers told Sean if he didn’t sign their plea deal, he and his wife would remain incarcerated until December. In addition, Eboni would receive the same charges as Sean if he refused the please. He accepted, not wanting his wife to go to jail. His agreement included 60 months probations, drug treatment, and thousands in fines.
The couple struggled to keep up with the mounting costs. Eboni, who works as a certified nursing assisted, lost a job offer. The Worsleys lived with family or in their car for a while. By January 2019, they were homeless. Sean missed a February court date in Pickens County that year, and the Department of Veteran Affairs told him that Alabama had issued a fugitive warrant for his arrest. As a result, the VA cut his benefits.
Sean couldn’t pay the $250 to renew his medical marijuana card. During a traffic stop in Arizona, he was arrested for marijuana possession without a valid medical card. He was extradited back to Alabama, per Pickens County demands. He already owed $3,800 in court costs, but Alabama made Worsley pay for his cross-country move, more than doubling those fees. He has been in a Pickens County jail since early 2020 and a judge revoked his probation in April and gave Sean a five-year sentence.
His mother hired an attorney to appeal the case. The Alabama prison system is overcrowded, due to Covid-19 regulations. Until a spot opens up, Sean Worsely remains in the Picket County jail.