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Why legalizing marijuana at the federal level is complicated

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Posted at 9:46 AM, Nov 11, 2022

Marijuana is legal in 21 states and the District of Columbia for recreational purposes. Maryland and Missouri voted in favor of it during the 2022 midterm elections. Medical marijuana is legal in 37 states.

Polls show the majority of Americans support the legalization of marijuana.

Army veteran Sean Worsley says marijuana treats the wounds that earned him the Purple Heart in Iraq. His job was to clear explosive devices.

“I suffered quite a few Level 3 concussions resulting in PTSD and traumatic brain injury," Worsley said.

While Worsley buys marijuana legally in his home state of Arizona, one of the states where marijuana is legal for both recreational and medicinal use, that's not the state law everywhere, and Worsley knows that firsthand.

He was arrested for possession in Alabama in 2016.

"We’re still feeling the repercussions of it. It affects everything, every aspect of life," Worsley said.

Worsley was arrested at a gas station in Alabama while he and his wife, Eboni, were on a road trip to visit family in North Carolina. 

When the police officer approached their car, Worsley remembers him asking about Marijuana. 

"It was the first thing," Worsley said. "Do you have any cannabis in the car? Where's the cannabis? Where is the marijuana?”

Worsley told the officer he had marijuana in his car and it was legally prescribed by doctors in Arizona.

“I had my medical cannabis card. It was put away in the trunk, it wasn’t accessible," Worsley said.

Medical marijuana has since been legalized in Alabama, but at the time, it was illegal in the state.

“I felt like I was doing the right thing. Evidently, I wasn’t," Worsley said.

Worsley was charged with possession of marijuana.

First given probation, he returned to Arizona where he said he struggled to afford the thousands of dollars of legal fees. He said it even caused him to become homeless.

In 2020, an Alabama judge, citing issues like Worsley's past criminal charges for marijuana, and his failure to meet with his probation officer, revoked Worsley's probation and sentenced him to five years in prison.

"I didn't see how it was possible. I wasn’t hurting anybody. I wasn’t doing anything wrong," Worsley said.

He served less than a year of that sentence. Alabama granted him parole after his story gained national attention.

“You’re not going to just take him and do anything to him and treat him because you have a one-size-fits-all system and it’s absolutely not," said Worsley's wife.

Groups like the criminal justice reform organization, Alabama Appleseed, advocated for his release.

“When people make 'gotcha' statements like, 'He should have known better, he should have known the criminal code in Alabama,' I would ask them how often they check the criminal code before they bring their medicine from another state into another,” said Alabama Appleseed's Leah Nelson, who closely followed Worsley's case and published detailed accounts of it online.

The Worsleys believe this issue wouldn’t have happened if marijuana was legal at the federal level.

"It's more so, the freedom of individuals to medicate themselves so how they choose, whatever works for them, how they see necessary for their bodies, their lives, as long as they’re doing it responsibly. I feel like they should be allowed to," Worsley said.

President Joe Biden pardoned federal offenses for simple marijuana possession. He's encouraged governors to do the same.

He's also asked his administration to look at reclassifying marijuana.

"When we look at cannabis, as a whole, it’s still a Schedule I drug, which means it has no medical value and it's on the same level as heroin or LSD," said Metropolitan State University of Denver Professor Shannon Donnelly.

Donnelly worked in the marijuana industry and teaches college classes about it.

“When we’re looking at federal cannabis legislation, we’re looking at a five-to-ten-year process. Some of those things that are going to be looked at are where is cannabis going to be sold, what if a state does not want to have cannabis sold in their local jurisdiction," she noted.

Worsley is now in school studying the power of plants as medicine and works as a roofer to make money, but he will continue to have a felony charge related to his case in Alabama on his record. However, he hopes his story can bring change.

"I can have some type of impact by educating individuals about cannabis, what’s going on, what happens when individuals are incarcerated for this plant, and just building awareness," Worsley said.