What was the worst that could happen? The marijuana in his back seat had been legally prescribed to him in Arizona. Worsley, an Iraq War veteran with a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), had used the substance for years to calm his nightmares and soothe his back pain.
Yet unknown to him, even his legal prescription was illegal in Alabama. The worst-case scenario was far more severe than Worsley could have ever imagined: a years-long legal fight that plunged him into homelessness, cost him thousands of dollars in legal fees and recently concluded in a 60-month prison sentence.
“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 Alabama Appleseed, a criminal justice organization that recently published a detailed account of his case. “I feel like I lost parts of me in Iraq, parts of my spirit and soul that I can’t ever get back.”
Besides painting a damning picture of Alabama’s criminal justice system, Worsley’s tale underscores the wildly inconsistent legal landscape across states on marijuana. While recreational use of the drug is legal in 11 states and the District of Columbia and medicinal use is allowed in 33 jurisdictions, the substance is entirely banned in Alabama.
Not so in Arizona, where the substance has been legal for medical purposes since 2011. Worsley, a Purple Heart recipient who spent five years in the military, including a 14-month deployment to Iraq, used his legal prescription to relieve his short-term memory issues, depression and chronic pain, according to the Appleseed report.
Neither the Gordo Police Department nor Pickens County District Judge Lance Bailey immediately responded to phone calls requesting comment from The Washington Post. According to the Appleseed report, Abramo no longer works for the department, and attempts to reach him by The Post were unsuccessful.
In 2016, Worsley and his wife, Eboni, were driving from a visit to her family in Mississippi to surprise his own relatives in North Carolina. Driving along Highway 82, they stopped at a gas station outside Tuscaloosa, Ala., to refuel their car. Worsley played air guitar at the pump.
On Aug. 15, 2016, shortly after 11 p.m., Abramo heard loud music coming from a vehicle and “observed a Black male get out of the passenger side vehicle,” according to a police report obtained by Appleseed. “He was laughing and joking around and looking at the driver while doing all this.”
When Abramo told them their music was violating the noise ordinance in Gordo, a town of less than 2,000 people, they quickly turned it down. After the officer said he smelled marijuana, Worsley said he was a disabled veteran and tried to show the officer his medical marijuana card from Arizona.
“I explained to him that Alabama did not have medical marijuana,” the police report said, according to Appleseed. “I then placed the suspect in hand cuffs."
In the back of the vehicle, Abramo also found a prescription bottle of marijuana, rolling papers, a pipe, a six-pack of beer, a bottle of vodka and some pain pills, all of which he cited as reasons to arrest the couple. (It is illegal to possess most types of alcohol in Pickens County, which at the time was one of Alabama’s 23 partially dry counties.)
While first-time possession of marijuana is sometimes charged as a misdemeanor, according to the Appleseed report, it can be charged as a felony if the arresting officer believes the substance is for purposes “other than personal use.”
That’s what the Worsleys, who spent six days in jail, were charged with. After being released on bond, the couple’s legal nightmare seemed to be over.
But almost a year later, the bail bondsman called back with a dire message: The Pickens County judge was revoking bonds on all his cases. That meant they had to rush back from Arizona, he told the couple, or they would be charged with failing to appear in court.
They hustled and drove back overnight to Alabama, where the Worsleys were split up and taken to separate rooms for questioning — even though, as Eboni insisted to authorities, her husband’s disabilities meant he needed a legal guardian to help make him an informed decision.
“They said no, and they literally locked me in a room separate from him,” Eboni Worsley told Leah Nelson, the Alabama Appleseed researcher who wrote the report. “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."
It was that threat that caused Worsley to give in and sign the plea agreement: 60 months of probation, drug treatment and thousands of dollars in fines.
But in February 2019, he missed a court date in Pickens County. The local probational program cut short his supervision, citing “failure to attend” and “failure to pay court-ordered moneys.” And it wasn’t until months later, according to the Appleseed report, that he learned from the Department of Veterans Affairs that Alabama had issued a fugitive warrant for his arrest.
Now struggling with homelessness, he failed to pay $250 months later to renew his medical marijuana card. When he was arrested at a traffic stop in Arizona last August, according to the Alabama Political Reporter, police found him in possession of the substance without a valid medical marijuana card.
Pickens County demanded he be extradited back to Alabama — and made Worsley pay for it, more than doubling the $3,800 he already owed in court costs. In April, the Pickens County judge sentenced Worsley to five years in prison.
Worsley is appealing the sentence. But he is also back in Pickens County Jail, waiting for a spot to open up in the Alabama prison system.