Sean Worsley earned a Purple Heart for his service in Iraq, where he had the dangerous job of disabling roadside bombs. When an IED knocked him unconscious, he suffered a traumatic brain injury and was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. But by 2012, Worsley felt optimistic: he had fallen in love and married his wife, Eboni Worsley, and he had a prescription for medical marijuana to help treat the insomnia, paranoia, and night terrors caused by his PTSD.
But their life as they knew it came to a screeching halt in 2016, when Sean and Eboni Worsley were arrested on cannabis charges in Alabama while on a road trip to visit their extended family. After six years of legal and personal trauma – including probation, incarceration, homelessness, health issues, and being separated from Sean's children — the Worsleys are only now beginning to rebuild their lives and their family.
"The smoke is just starting to clear," says Sean. "I'm most upset about the time they took from my family."
The Worsleys' story is a case study in how our country's inconsistent state-by-state marijuana laws can have Kafkaesque consequences for cannabis users. One arrest for a small amount of marijuana resulted in thousands of dollars in legal fees and lost wages. Six years of uncertainty and legal back-and-forth took an intense mental and physical toll on the Worsleys. Sean's incarceration served to further traumatize a decorated veteran who was already suffering from PTSD, and now he's working hard to repair his own mental health as well as that of his wife and his children.
"Before getting out of prison, Sean had been in constant survival mode," Eboni says. "He needed time just to get his mind back right."
A Devoted Couple
Sean and Eboni Worsley got together in 2012, when they were both living in Arizona. Neither one of them was looking for a relationship at the time, but when the couple met at a mutual friend's house, they felt powerfully drawn to each other.
"There was just something about him," Eboni said. "I wanted to love him; I wanted to be around him."
Sean felt the same way. After spending about five days with Eboni, he told her he felt like she was meant to be his wife. "I was nervous," Sean admitted. "I thought she was going to say I was crazy." The couple got married just 12 days after meeting and will celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary in October.
Despite six of their years together having been marred by a convoluted and unjust legal journey, Sean and Eboni still simmer with newlywed energy. The couple complements one another: Sean is soft-spoken with a shy smile, while Eboni is effusive and affectionate. I recently spent two days with the Worsleys and was struck by the positivity and hopefulness they both radiate, despite the hardships they've endured.
A Legal Nightmare
In August 2016, the couple was driving from Mississippi, where they had visited Eboni's father, to surprise Sean's family in North Carolina. Around 11 p.m., Eboni stopped to gas up the car in the small town of Gordo, Alabama.
"I never even made it into the gas station," said Sean. On his way into the store, he noticed Eboni had turned the music down, and Sean turned around to see a police cruiser blocking their car. The officer noticed a decal that Sean had gotten from a cannabis dispensary for veterans and asked if they had marijuana in the car.
Sean immediately cooperated, explaining that yes, he had medical cannabis in the car. He handed the officer his driver's license, his medical ID, and his cannabis card. "Everywhere I went, I always kept my card with me," says Sean. But the officer snatched Sean's cards from his hand and grabbed handcuffs instead.
Despite having a prescription for marijuana and a very small amount (10 grams) on hand, the Worsleys were charged with Class C felony for possession of cannabis with intent to distribute.
The Worsleys were also hit with a slew of other charges, including illegal possession of paraphernalia (Sean had rolling papers and a pipe) and violating a noise ordinance. Unbeknownst to the Worsleys, they were driving through Pickens County, which is partially dry, and they had a six-pack of beer and a bottle of vodka in the car. Usually, dry-county rules are only enforced when it comes to selling alcohol, but the officer tacked on an alcohol possession charge and hauled them off to the county jail.
"We don't know where we are, it's pitch-black dark, and we're going through the woods," Eboni said. "It was like something out of a movie." Terrified, the Worsleys spent six days in jail in a place where they knew absolutely no one, until they were able to put their family in touch with a bail bondsman.
As of today, recreational cannabis is legal in 18 states and Washington DC. But between 2010 and 2018, the U.S. made 6.1 million marijuana-related arrests, according to the ACLU. Though white and Black people tend to use marijuana at similar rates, Black people in the U.S. are 3.73 times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, even in states where cannabis is legal.
In Alabama, the numbers are even starker: in 2016, when the Worsleys were arrested, Black people were more than four times as likely as white people to be arrested for marijuana in Alabama.
Although the charges against Eboni were dropped, Sean would accept a a plea agreement in 2017 that included five years of probation, which he was allowed to serve in Arizona, plus a drug treatment program and thousands of dollars in fines, fees, and court costs.
The years that followed were a legal and procedural nightmare.
The Trap of Probation
Almost a year after his arrest, Sean's bail bondsman called to let them know that the Pickens County judge was revoking bonds on his cases. Somehow, the Worsleys had to get back to Alabama in less than two days or they would be charged with failing to appear in court.
Read more >> Life After a Cannabis Conviction: Stephanie Shepard
Sean told the bondsman, "It's not like I'm trying to skip out. I just physically do not have the funds to get there." They couple borrowed money to make the drive, hit the road at 8 p.m., and arrived at their destination at 4 p.m. the next day.
When they showed up at court, they were immediately separated from one another. This despite the fact that, as Sean's legal caregiver, Eboni was supposed to be allowed to stay by the disabled veteran's side to help him make decisions. Her request was denied, and Sean took the plea deal.
Sean returned to Arizona to serve the rest of his probation and visited the Veterans Affairs office for an assessment to be placed in drug treatment. But in a cruel and absurd twist, the VA office rejected his request, stating that he "has legal documentation to support his use and therefore does not meet criteria for a substance use disorder or meet need for substance abuse treatment."
While Sean and Eboni were trying to communicate their situation to Sean’s probation officer and their attorney in Alabama, Eboni lost her job, the Worsleys found themselves homeless, and Eboni needed heart surgery.
"Probation and parole, they are just traps to send you right back to keep you in their grasp," said Sean in an interview for the 2021 Nova documentary "The Cannabis Question." "You want to lock me up for not having a job, you want to lock me up for not having a place to stay. How am I supposed to get these things if I can't get a job because you have me labeled as a felon?"
In early 2020, while Sean was still on probation, he was pulled over for a traffic violation in Arizona. When the police told Sean that he was ordered back to Alabama, the disabled veteran — who has PTSD and a permanent brain injury — ran away on foot, afraid. He was taken into custody, and a Pickens County judge in Alabama sentenced him to five years in prison.
"I feel like I’m being thrown away by a country I went and served for," Sean wrote in a letter from the Pickens County Jail to Alabama Appleseed, a criminal justice organization.
Thanks in part to public outcry, Sean was released on parole in November 2020, after being incarcerated in Alabama for 11 months. But the financial, physical, and mental aftershocks continue.
The Worsleys' Fight For Justice
Immediately after Sean's release, when the couple needed stability most, the Worsleys were only just scraping by. Faced with years of legal fees and fines, plus the high cost of living in temporary housing when they were homeless, the couple was struggling to cover the costs of food and shelter. For help, they turned to the nonprofit organization Last Prisoner Project, which is committed to drug policy reform, freeing prisoners incarcerated for cannabis, and helping the formerly incarcerated transition back into their lives.
Thanks in part to assistance they've received from Last Prisoner Project, the Worsleys are getting mental health treatment for themselves and their 15-year-old daughter, Yasmyn. They are focused on repairing their relationship with Yasmyn, who now lives with the couple in Arizona.
And they're making plans for the future. Eboni, who previously worked as a behavioral and mental health technician, is launching a reintegration program called Bound to Be Free, which provides wraparound services for people coming out of prison to help reduce recidivism. After all, the Worsleys know firsthand how difficult it can be to get your life back on track after a prison sentence.
Sean and Eboni are amplifying their story in order to bring more attention to the cause of cannabis injustice. They were featured in the PBS Nova documentary "The Cannabis Question," which is available to stream online. They've also teamed up with House of Wise and Last Prisoner project for a limited-edition product, launching April 13, and an NFT that will raise money for their family and for the Last Prisoner Project Family Support Fund. (Sign up for a special waitlist to have access to the limited-edition product drop and the upcoming NFT auction.)
The Fight Goes On
While it may feel like federal cannabis legalization is just around the corner, the future is still uncertain — and we have years of history to reckon with. On Friday, March 31, the House of Representatives passed legislation to decriminalize marijuana at the federal level, which would allow some convictions on federal cannabis charges to be expunged. Because Sean Worsley was convicted at the state level, he is unlikely to be affected by the legislation — although it does set aside funding for states to clear their own cannabis records.
But even if The Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act passes the Senate — which experts say is unlikely — the effects of our country's decades-long war on drugs will reverberate for years, especially in communities of color, which have been disproportionately affected by arrests and incarceration.
About Last Prisoner Project
Last Prisoner Project works to free people who are incarcerated for cannabis and also donates money to the families of those affected by their incarceration. If you'd like to help support the Worsleys and many other families like them, donate to Last Prisoner Project. House of Wise contributes a portion of all its profits to Last Prisoner Project's Family Support Fund.