By Danny Hulkower
I suggest to all my readers, whether you toke for medical reasons, or because you damn well feel like it, I recommend you roll one up before you continue reading. Go ahead, I'll wait. Although we all agree that the war on marijuana is clown run circus, sometimes things happen that are truly infuriating and leave no room for humor. Those of us living in NYC might remember the recent case, where the cowboys in the Staten Island-NYPD planted marijuana in a car they stopped. Although the occupants knew it was planted, it wasn't until the bodycam footage was leaked about a year later, that it came to light. Nevertheless, the damage of having a baggie of marijuana in their car had already been done. While it seems logical that police should be putting less time and effort into weed, and instead of putting the energy into serious crimes, you'll see how marijuana possession can still be used against a person. How an entire system, from an ignorant cop to a gung-ho court system, nobody will turn around and ask: "Does the punishment fit the crime"?
In 2016, 33-year-old disabled Iraqi war veteran, Sean Worsley, and his wife Eboni, were traveling from their home in Arizona to North Carolina, via a stop in Mississippi. At a gas station in the enlightened town of Gordo, Pickens County, Alabama, the couple was asked by a deputy to please turn down the music in their car, which he claimed was loud enough to violate local ordinances. The officer then requested to search the vehicle, and figuring they'd done nothing wrong, they permitted it. Right away Officer Carl Abramo noticed the fragrance of the death of the 4th amendment... weed. Mr. Worsley explained that he is a disabled veteran, with a valid medical card issued in Arizona. His wife, who has medical problems of her own, carried her legally prescribed pain medication in a travel case, (which is unheard of, since most people I know schlep all their individual pill bottles with them, everywhere they go /s); They also found a six-pack and a bottle of vodka. Pickens County being a partially dry county, the law had to come down hard. And it did. Officer Abramo, informed the couple that would be placed under arrest. They were cuffed and sat in jail for a week.
Finally bonding out, they paid to get their car out of impound and returned to Arizona. With the charges against them pending in Alabama making things difficult in Arizona, the couple was then forced to lease a home in Nevada. Flash forward a year, and not only are the charges still pending, but now the judge in the case has decided to revoke all bonds he managed, forcing the couple to borrow money, and book it back to Alabama lest they are charged with failing to appear. Arriving in Alabama, the two were separated. Eboni tried to explain to the prosecutors that Sean requires assistance to make sure he comprehends whatever they ask him to sign. Suffering a brain injury in Iraq, coupled with PTSD, Eboni pleaded with them to find someone who could make sure her husband makes an informed decision. Instead, prosecutors told the wounded warrior that if he didn't sign, his wife would be charged with the same crimes as him, and they would both be incarcerated. Sean Signed, pleading to 60 months probation, drug treatment, and a myriad of fines.
Breaking their lease in Nevada, the couple was forced to return to Arizona, the state they lived in when he was arrested, to serve his probation, and living month to month. Interestingly, when Sean sought drug treatment (as per his plea) with the VA, they denied him. Medical marijuana isn't an addiction according to the VA.
Due to the felony charges against her, Eboni lost her information sensitive job with children. By New Years 2019, they were reduced to sleeping in their car and couch surfing; until Sean lost his VA Homeless benefits when Alabama issued a warrant against him for failing to appear for a February court date in Alabama. Eboni's own health deteriorated and was forced to undergo heart surgery. Taking out loans to cover it, they ended up losing their car, and another home they managed to find.
In the summer of 2019, Sean was stopped in Arizona, for a traffic infraction. Although he was receiving his VA benefits again, he wasn't able to afford the $250 to renew his medical marijuana card. Once again this disabled veteran found himself shackled in the back of a police car. This time in the state that issued him the card in the first place.
Ever so thirsty for justice, Alabama ordered him extradited back to Pickens County, where on April 28th, the father of 2, disabled veteran, with a wife undergoing major surgery, Sean Worsley was sentenced to 60 months in prison. He is still being held in Pickens County jail, to keep COVID isolated. Don't worry, Alabama still also expects him to pay back all the fees the court levied against him.
What on earth is going on here? Senator Cam Ward of Alabama chimed in, telling the Alabama Political Reporter: “This is an anomaly. This is not the norm.” Ward went on to tell APR that out of 23,000 inmates serving time in Alabama, only about 60-70 are there for anything pot-related. He continued: “They (the 60-70) got arrested for a whole truckload, semi-truck loads even, for trafficking,” Ward said, not the small amount that Worsley will lose five years of freedom over.
How does a request to turn down the music at a gas station, turn into a Class C felony? Through laws that are designed to allow for just those scenarios. Alcohol, then drug prohibition, allowed the court to create laws that allow police near indefinite power to circumvent the once-mighty 4th amendment, in order to search you for possible substances that are illegal. American legal loopholes (often intentionally left that way by the courts) give police officers plenty of resources to get into your trunk without you even consenting. There is a famous saying among cops: "if you can't find a reason to stop them, you're not trying hard enough".
When faced with an inquisitive cop, most people consent to a search, even if they know they're carrying something illegal. The cop will have his way regardless, they figure. Unfortunately, they're usually right. Declining to allow the search might help your lawyer get you off later, but it won't save you the aggravation of the arrest. Cops are legally permitted to lie to you, and even if you insist on refusing the search, there are always little tricks they can employ. The most famous of which:
"Do I smell weed?"
Isn't even all that's needed to get a cop digging around into your glove compartment. Many people believe that the smell of weed isn't enough to justify probable cause for a search. Well, get your air freshener out, because this is false. The odor of weed is a legally probable cause.
Ever hear of a "free air sniff"?
Let's look at the case of Florida vs. Harris. A K9 officer and his buddy Aldo stopped a visibly nervous Harris, who refused to allow the officer to search the trunk. Aldo was deployed and woofed at the trunk. Upon opening it, the officer discovered ingredients for a meth lab, and Harris was arrested accordingly.
Weeks later, Mr. Harris is once again stopped by the same K9 officer, who let Aldo loose to perform a “free air sniff”. Aldo alerts the officer to something by the driver’s door. Aside from an open beer can, nothing illegal was found.
The case argued that dogs were not reliable enough to determine probable cause. In fact, the defense argued, regardless of the intense training Aldo went through and continues to go through, 80% of dog sniffs turn up nothing. It is even claimed that handlers can coerce the dog into detecting something, by motioning to it. The court ruled against Harris, insisting that dogs are adequately trained and can be considered reliable to establish probable cause for a search. So there, you don't even need to say no, for it be a yes! Although the courts did rule that police may not extend a traffic stop to perform a sniff, (Rodriguez vs. USA), the time required to perform a traffic stop was never established, and the court affirmed that a dog may be called to sniff, even if probable cause wasn't yet proven.
The bottom line is, all these circumventions revolve around drugs, particularly weed. Establishing that disabled veterans with medical cards and personal stashes can still be railroaded through the legal circus is frightening. What happens now when medical cardholders are stopped, and the cop "smells weed"? If the driver shows his medical card and no evidence that he is using while driving is visible, does a cop still have a right to search a vehicle? If a cop decided to do a "free air sniff" and the dog detects a patient's weed, will a cop still be permitted to rip the car apart? Eboni Worsley was carrying her legally prescribed narcotics, and although she didn't have the bottles on hand, despite varying drug laws among the states she is visiting, the law understands she has legal possession of them. If a person is pulled over and tells the officer that they're carrying legally prescribed pain killers, it doesn't become a probable cause for the officer to assume they have other drugs. So why the cognitive dissonance for marijuana? A prescription bottle, a medical card, why is there a difference? When will this issue be sorted once and for all, so a legal definition of a patient can be established, so weed patients can be left alone?
These laws persist because, without them, the police would have less to do. if the law changes to say that the odor of marijuana no longer is allowed to be used as probable cause, what can officers claim was their reason to make entry? Does Oxycontin smell?
I understand that we've come a long way since marijuana arrests were akin to being caught with heroin. Incarceration sentences became tickets, and like Amsterdam, it seemed like marijuana was being "tolerated". However, coffee shops in The Netherlands are still raided and shuttered, and cases like The Worsleys still pop up in American news. The reason? Tolerance, decriminalization, and low priority are code words for: "useful when we feel like it". I don't have to, but I can. Even as NYC started relaxing the laws on pot, blacks and Latinos were still overwhelmingly targeted and arrested, while everyone else got off with a ticket or a warning. If weed were declared LEGAL, full stop, cops wouldn't be able to just randomly stop people and justify it by claiming: "Oh I smelled something"; and demanding a frisk.
Officer Abramo found vodka and a 6 pack in the Worsleys car. You best believe he added that to the charges! Pickens is a semi-dry county and, although according to the Alabama Appleseed Law Center, the county only enforces this rule against people selling alcohol, somehow the Worsleys became the exception. And of course, the Class C felony is Eboni’s prescription medicine. All thanks to loud music, but mostly the smell of weed.
Since the murder of George Floyd, the questions of how to fix the American’s crumbling police forces has gone into extreme directions, including full-on defunding, and possible creation of a national police force. It's not about the police, it's about the confusing laws, that only they know how to use to get their way, but the opposite for us. It's about the fact that weed is medicine in one state, narcotics in another, and yet still illegal federally. Law was benched, when policing became more about taxing (fines and costs) and spending (on bigger and better weapons against drugs), than actual protecting and serving. The confusion in the laws keeps that cycle in motion.
I hope that soon Sean Worsley will be released from Alabama, and allowed to return to his wife's side. I hope that they're compensated for their time and energy, and not just told: "oopsie" and sent away to pick up the pieces on their own. I hope that this will be the last time in American history that patients will be treated as criminals.