Alabama’s War on Marijuana
Assessing the Fiscal and Human Toll of Criminalization
Wesley Shelton was caught in late 2016 with a small bag of marijuana he bought for $10.
What followed was a Kafkaesque episode that illustrates the absurdity and wastefulness of marijuana enforcement in Alabama.
Shelton would spend the next 15 months in the county jail awaiting adjudication.
And while he may have gotten a rotten deal, so did the taxpayers of Montgomery County. The county likely spent at least $21,000 to keep him locked up.
It began when Shelton, 56, dozed off on a bench. A police officer came along and asked to search him. The officer found the marijuana and hauled him off to jail. Even though the amount was small, the state charged him with a felony because of a prior possession conviction.
Weeks later, he had a preliminary hearing before a local district judge, who determined that there was probable cause for the arrest and bound the case over to the grand jury.
That’s when several failings of the criminal justice system began to conspire against Shelton. First, the court refused to release him without bail because he didn’t have a stable home address. Then, his bail was set at $2,500. Shelton couldn’t come up with the $250 he needed to post bond.
Finally, the prosecutors faced a hurdle of their own making before they could proceed.
The district attorney in Montgomery County does not seek to indict people until he gets a report from the drug lab, according to Brock Boone, an ACLU attorney and former Montgomery County public defender.
Thanks to a huge backlog of cases, it can take the underfunded Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences (DFS) months to complete a test.
So, Shelton stayed in jail.
“This is very common in Montgomery,” Boone said. “There are other Wesley Sheltons in the Montgomery County Jail right now.”
Shelton languished in jail as his relationships frayed and sense of purpose diminished.
He estimates he wrote more than a dozen letters – to his attorney, to the court clerk and to the district judge, each time begging to plead guilty and go home.
In a Sept. 27, 2017, letter, he wrote, “I’m [sic] admit my guilt. I was in possession of marijuana. I’ve written 5 time [sic] asking for a bond reduction. I’ve received not one answer, from the court. … I’ve never in my life feel [sic] so totally helpless, with no end. Help me please.” Several weeks later, he wrote again: “I admit my guilt. I’ve been in jail for 13 months and counting. I have very few options. I need some help!”
No one seemed to notice. Shelton was caught in a kind of purgatory between the district court, which had finished with his case, and the circuit court, which wouldn’t pick it up until there was an indictment.
In December 2017, Shelton’s pleas finally got through to someone. He pleaded guilty to first-degree possession – a felony. The state never got around to testing his marijuana.
After his plea, Shelton was freed. But he had lost more than a year of his life for $10 worth of marijuana.
“Right now, in my life, because of that 15 months, I feel as though I’m 10 years behind where I’m supposed to be,” he said.
A conviction for a marijuana offense in Alabama can cause massive collateral damage to a person’s life. That’s especially true when a person is an elderly cancer patient.
Mary Thomas, 75, never smoked marijuana heavily, but she did enjoy it recreationally with her family and friends from time to time. She had an open-door policy at her home in Northport. Occasionally, she let family friends who were down on their luck stay with her. In 2011, a friend of her grandson came to stay at her house. They shared meals and he helped in the garden.
Thomas liked the man – until the day police showed up.
It turned out he was a confidential informant. To keep himself out of trouble, the man tracked and reported unlawful activity to police. One day, police officers let themselves in through Thomas’ unlocked door. They handcuffed her and took her to jail.
Thomas had recently been paid, and police, using Alabama’s notoriously abusive civil asset forfeiture program took and kept over $300 in cash from her wallet and about $50 from the pocket of a housecoat. They claimed the money was evidence of drug dealing.
According to Thomas, she had a small bag of marijuana when police turned up. Even so, police charged her with possession for “other than personal use,” a felony. She paid $1,800 for bond and another $5,000 to a lawyer who advised her to plead guilty in exchange for probation. Thomas, who had never been in serious trouble before, was terrified of going to jail. She took the plea. Her lawyer never advised her to challenge the forfeiture of her paycheck money, and the state kept it.
She never saw her houseguest again.
Thomas’ life spiraled out of control. She was on probation for about a year. She was on the hook for about $2,000 worth of court fines and fees. The state took the money from her income tax refund until her court debt was settled. With costs piling up, she needed to keep working. But because her driver’s license was suspended as an automatic consequence of her conviction, she had to find people to drive her to and from work each day – no easy feat, since she worked the midnight-to-8 a.m. shift at a halfway house.
Worst of all, from Thomas’ perspective, she lost her right to vote. “From the day they said black folks could vote, I been voting,” Thomas said. “That was one of my rights, and it was taken from me.”
Making matters far worse, she developed breast cancer. She lost 70 pounds. In response to the stress and depression, she began drinking heavily, and in 2013, two years after her felony conviction, she was arrested for public intoxication. A judge showed leniency after she removed her hat – as was required by court rules – and he saw that she was bald, a permanent consequence of her cancer treatment.
One day, her niece brought her some marijuana and insisted that she smoke it. It helped with her appetite and pain.
Today, Thomas, is in relatively good health and living in Tuscaloosa, where she cares for her 55-year-old adult son with special needs. She no longer abuses alcohol. She has forgiven the man who turned her in to police, she said.
Kiasha Hughes picked the wrong place to change for work.
Rushing to make it from the laundromat to her shift as a University of Alabama food service worker, she and her boyfriend parked behind a fast-food joint so she could change into a freshly laundered uniform. Responding to a call about suspicious activity, police officers pulled up and searched the car.
Seeing the approaching police vehicle, her boyfriend had asked her to hide a few baggies of marijuana in her clothes. Now they were both going to jail.
Hughes, then 23, was two months pregnant and in the throes of pregnancy-induced nausea. She waited for hours in a vomit-spattered holding area before police photographed, fingerprinted and booked her. By the time she was “dressed in” to jail, dinner had already been served. She spent a miserable few hours trying to rest on a mat in a crowded dorm before bonding out around midnight on Valentine’s Day 2014. By the time the ordeal was over, she was so sick and dehydrated that she had to be given intravenous fluid at a hospital.
Hughes, who says she doesn’t even like marijuana, said it was the first and only time she was ever arrested. But because police judged that the marijuana was for “other than personal use” – a subjective determination based on officers’ suspicion alone – and because they also found paraphernalia in her boyfriend’s car, she was charged with a felony.
She had just cashed her paycheck, and police, using Alabama’s abusive civil asset forfeiture program, took that money from her wallet when they arrested her, claiming in court that it was the proceeds of drug activity. Exhausted and sick from a difficult pregnancy, she was too stressed to challenge the $547 seizure in court – an effort that would in all likelihood have cost her more in attorney’s fees than the money was worth.
And she had bigger things to worry about. Having dreamed her whole life of working in health care, Hughes found herself suddenly ineligible for the positions she interviewed for at area providers. “They don’t hire pending felonies. And then that made me very upset, cause I’m thinking I’m fixing to get the job and they call me back, ‘Well we can’t offer you employment because of your background.’”
Hughes had been studying to be a medical assistant when she got pregnant with her daughter Jameria, now 3, and was seeking a job that would burnish her resume. Instead, she found herself working the overnight shift at a poultry processing plant, deboning chicken for $12 an hour. She’s grateful for the job, which provides insurance and other benefits, but sad and frustrated that her arrest cost her the opportunity to advance her career goals and better provide for her children.
It took two and a half years for Hughes’ case to finally get resolved.
At first, law enforcement tried to get her to share incriminating information about people she knew, but Hughes had nothing to tell. In 2017, she was offered an opportunity to participate in a diversion program that might have resulted in a clean record. But, pregnant with her second child and still working a third-shift job so she could look after her little girl during the day, she realized she would never be able to meet the program’s demands or pay the $1,000 needed to enroll, plus court costs and the costs of drug screenings. (Tuscaloosa does waive diversion fees on a case-by-case basis, but the determination that an individual qualifies is made only after they enter a conditional plea of guilty and register for the program.)
“You have to take classes, you would have to pay for drug testing” and do community service, Hughes said. “And I knew I wasn’t gonna be able to wake up and do that.” Instead, two and a half years after her arrest, she took a deal and pleaded guilty to misdemeanor possession of marijuana. She received a year of probation, and a bill for $1,440 in court costs.
Each month, Hughes pays $40 to a probation officer and $50 toward her court costs – money she can ill afford. The overnight child-care center where her children stay while she works the third-shift is expensive, and she plans to take a second job on weekends. Working multiple jobs will make it even harder for her to return to school and get her derailed medical career back on track.
Even so, asked where she hopes to be in five years, Hughes, now 27, said, “I’ll be graduated and probably working, and working on another degree. Because I don’t want to stop. I want to keep going. I want to progress into a nurse.”
Sabrina Mass sat on her living room couch, her arms twisted behind her by handcuffs. Her thin bathrobe gaped open in front, leaving her breasts exposed to the police who had knocked down the door. Her son Michael Brooks, 24, lay on the floor with an officer’s gun to his head. Her daughter and tiny granddaughters, ages 1 and 3, emerged from a bedroom, only to be driven back at gunpoint by the officers who were searching the house.
She had seen the news about unarmed black men just like her son being killed by law enforcement officers.
Mass prayed the police would not shoot Michael.
“I started having these visions, like they’re gonna kill my son.”
The officers – who, according to Mass, said they decided to come in with guns drawn after seeing military decals on the cars outside (Brooks was a member of the National Guard) – didn’t shoot Brooks. Instead, after finding a few grams of marijuana in a bedroom, they took him and his girlfriend to the station.
An investigator with the Mobile City Police’s Narcotics and Vice Unit told Brooks he had confidential informants who would testify that Brooks had sold them marijuana. Everything would be fine, the officer told him, if Brooks would be a confidential informant – and as long as he told no one and promised not to call a lawyer.
Mass, a retired nurse who now works as a security guard, knew something was wrong when her son came back from the police station so stressed that he was throwing up. After growing up in a Texas orphanage, she was as protective of her children as she was strict with them. When she pried the story out of her son, she immediately found a criminal defense lawyer, Chase Dearman.
Dearman spoke with police, and Brooks believed his troubles were over. But a few weeks later, he started getting texts from the police officer asking when he would provide information about drug deals.
Brooks ignored them.
He got a job offshore working in the oil and gas industry out of Houston.
In late December 2015, while Brooks was working, Mobile police executed another raid on Mass’ house, using the same warrant they used the previous July. Though Brooks wasn’t even living there the first time, they returned before dawn twice more to turn the house upside down looking for him.
Mass called Brooks, and he turned himself in as soon as he was able to get back to Alabama. But he couldn’t fathom why they were after him.
A former honor student and football player for Mobile’s W.P. Davidson High School, he had attended college for three semesters before returning home to support a son he was expecting. He joined the National Guard and took a job in a restaurant, earning enough to live independently. He did not sell marijuana.
Indeed, Brooks’ case file shows that police were not even interested in him when they began their investigation. Rather, they were focused on his girlfriend. Because she sometimes stayed over with Brooks at Mass’ home, they started sending an informant there regularly to attempt to incriminate both of them.
The search affidavit indicates that the girlfriend, in July 2015, sold the informant four grams of marijuana, and a narrative written by the officer who arrested Brooks says he confessed to occasionally distributing marijuana. At a different point, according to attorney Dearman, the officer alleged that the girlfriend got the marijuana she sold to the informant from Brooks. Under the same Alabama law that makes passing a friend a marijuana cigarette at a concert “distribution of marijuana,” that act would make Brooks a felon.
Brooks says he never distributed marijuana to anyone and never told the officer that he did.
The charges hung over his head for years.
He lost his oil job when the state repeatedly moved his court date, forcing him to delay returning to the long stints offshore. He was honorably discharged from the National Guard. He obtained a commercial driver’s license in 2017, but no one wanted to hire a young black man with a pending felony charge.
At 26, after years of living on his own and paying his own way, he ran out of money and moved back in with his parents. “Offshore, I was averaging $55,000 a year – to nothing,” he said.
Finally, in February 2018, Brooks could stand it no longer. When the state offered him a chance to plead guilty to possession of paraphernalia – a violation for which he would serve informal probation for one year – he took it. Soon after, he secured a job driving trucks for Amazon. But the case “set me back years,” he said.
“All my bank accounts are closed. I’m used to working and making money. My credit’s messed up. I had to do this just so I could continue my life. I’m trying to get back to where I was.”
The whole family is scarred by the experience. Mass’ granddaughter, who was 3 when police first burst in that day, is now 6. She is so traumatized by the incident that she cannot bear to see Mass dressed for work as an armed security guard. She is currently in counseling.
And Mass, who used to love seeing police in her neighborhood because they made her feel safe, and who once stood with a former Mobile police chief to testify in favor of a teen curfew within city limits, doesn’t know what to think.
“The kids go through the baby phase, elementary, middle school, high school, as a minority family, and they beat the odds,” Mass said. “They beat the odds! And then, this.”
“We’re actually paying the police to come violate families,” she said. “We’re paying you to come violate our house and our home and our families. Our money, out of our hard-working sweat. Now how stupid does that sound?”
More than a dozen police officers burst into Nick Gibson’s dorm room early one morning in 2013. Before long, he and 60 other students would be arrested in the largest drug raid on or near the University of Alabama grounds in at least 30 years.
Many of the students were caught doing something that today is legal in nine states: possessing small amounts of marijuana. But in this case, that activity was the pretext for a massive pre-dawn drug raid still remembered for the students’ lives it altered.
As the police swarmed his room, “All I see is flashlights and gun barrels,” Gibson, now 24, recalled. The police pulled him out of bed and onto his hands and knees. “They start tearing my room apart.”
The officers had a warrant and quickly found a bag of marijuana. Gibson claimed the drugs immediately. “That’s my weed. I was smoking it,” he recalled telling the officers. The officers also, using Alabama’s easily abused civil asset forfeiture rules, took $1,250 of Gibson’s money, which he said was from his mother, and dumped out a jar of one-dollar bills he had been collecting.
Gibson said he counted 15 officers, some with pistols drawn and all wearing gear like the SWAT teams he had seen on TV.
The officers escorted Gibson out of the dorm, in handcuffs, into a van with more than a dozen other students from the building. Two were Gibson’s roommates.
Gibson later found out the van was one of many filled with students. The largescale operation was carried out by the multi-agency West Alabama Narcotics Task Force. The agents had been allowed by the UA administration to carry out the raids. At the jail, Gibson watched throughout the day as 74 more arrestees arrived, 61 of them students. Though there were a handful of other drug charges, most dealt with sale or possession of marijuana. Of the 183 drug charges that day, 75 were for first-degree possession of marijuana, a felony and the charge subject to a prosecutor’s discretion in Alabama.
Gibson fell in that category. In fact, he rarely sold and only sometimes possessed marijuana, he said. Sometimes, for example, he would give a friend a little bit of marijuana in return for an order of Buffalo wings the next time the two got together.
After the February arrest, Gibson was accepted into a diversion program for students. But he was in trouble again that November. The task force again caught him with marijuana. This time, the felony charge stuck.
Today, Gibson lives in Tuscaloosa and works at a restaurant. He did not graduate. The 2013 ordeal cost his family more than $40,000, he said, in court fees and legal costs.
Not all universities in Alabama see such strict marijuana enforcement as a positive thing. In an article about the 2013 raids at UA, the dean of students at Birmingham-Southern College, Ben Newhouse, said things would be handled differently there. In one three-year period, there were 87 drug violations reported on the Birmingham-Southern campus, but no one was arrested. “Philosophically for a first-time marijuana offense … we try to treat that as educationally as possible,” Newhouse said.