Alabama: pot prison state
Decades of struggle erased the worst vestiges of Alabama's racial discrimination policies, but the state now sponsors official persecution of another minority culture ? the cannabis culture.
I recently traveled to Alabama to investigate the sorry state of affairs in one of the poorest Southern states.
It's a state where millions of acres of trees lie cut and bereft in massive piles of wasted life, where crumbling shacks house large, impoverished families, where the governor cuts school and health care funding while increasing funding for drug war law enforcement and incarceration.
Alabama's a place where a 37-year-old DARE officer named Ray Malone gets a 10-year sentence for seducing a 14-year-old girl and making videotapes of himself having sex with her ? but an 18-year-old student named Webster Alexander gets 26 years in prison for selling an ounce of pot to an undercover officer who begged him for weed.
In this issue and the next of Cannabis Culture, you'll read of Alabama victims, perpetrators and heroes, and about how victory and wisdom can somehow come from persecution and imprisonment.
Speaking with retrospective regret, Webster Alexander admits he was "stupid" last year when he befriended a "new student" at the 600-student Lawrence County high school he attends in rural northwestern Alabama.
"He came in late in the school year when we were thinking about graduation parties," explained Alexander when I spoke to him at his family's homestead near Moulton. "He said his name was 'Jason'. He told us he was a motorcycle mechanic from Southern Alabama who was real depressed 'cause he was new here and his grandma was dying. He kept asking me and other people for weed."
According to Alexander, whose version of events contradicts sworn testimony of police officers and other government officials, "Jason" repeatedly offered to pay people to break the law.
"That's how I see it," the affable, tobacco-chewing "country boy" said as we walked along the dusty dirt road in front of the trailer home he shares with nearly a dozen family members, a few weeks before his final sentencing hearing in mid-March, 2003. "Sure I smoke weed. My daddy smokes weed. I been smoking it a long time. A lotta people out here smoke weed. It's a damn sight better than drinking. But nobody went up to the nark and started trying to sell him weed. He came to us, and he kept after us, until we felt sorry for him."
Indeed, officials admit that their undercover nark operation was aimed at Alexander and several other young men at the high school. The investigation was shepherded by Alexander's high school principal, a former sheriff named Ricky Nichols, who provided Jason with photos of Alexander and other "suspects" before Jason began his two-month snitch assignment at the school in February, 2002.
"It looks like the principal told the cop to come after me," Alexander says. "It wasn't like I was in this to be a seller. They asked me to be one. They made me one."
Principal Nichols made sure Jason was assigned to Alexander's classes. When students began to suspect Jason was a nark, he and Jason faked a verbal confrontation outside a classroom.
Nichols later asserted the charade successfully convinced suspicious students that Jason was a "bad boy" instead of a cop.
There were other charades as well, as Jason went out of his way to make sure that Alexander hooked him up with a few small sacks of weed.
"My truck doesn't work, so Jason gave me a ride to my house a lot," Alexander recalls. "I thought he was like any other stoner buddy. We'd smoke along the way home."
But the nark now claims he was only pretending to be smoking pot, and Alexander ruefully agrees that this might be the case.
"One time, my friend and I were watching him, and we thought he wasn't inhaling," Alexander remembers. " There's something wrong here, so we told him we were skeptical and we wanted to see him take a real big puff. He did, and it went down into his lungs and his eyes bugged out. When he says he never got high, he's lying."
Gun to the face
Alexander knew Jason for about five weeks, he said, and had tried to stop being involved with him soon after Jason came on the scene.
"I was relying on him because he had a car, I guess," Alexander said. "I should have been more suspicious because he was always asking weird questions and because of the inhalation problem. Basically, after hanging with him a few times, I told him to go away. In April, he came up to my house and asked me if I had any weed. All of a sudden, he pulled a gun out and stuck it in my face, and a whole bunch of cops came behind him."
During the arrest, Alexander says, Principal Nichols seemed to be in charge.
"They told me to get on the ground and I very carefully got down on my hands and knees because they all had their guns and I didn't want to get shot," he says. "Mr Nichols was here; when they let my cousin off the ground, he said, 'Throw the punk back down and search him again'."
Prosecutors allege Alexander sold about $300 worth of cannabis to the cop. Most high school kids accused of similar crimes have been let off with minor sentences or probation, but prosecutors piled a stack of extra felonies on Alexander's back. Alexander was convicted for things like "first degree marijuana possession," selling pot within three miles of a school, and also within three miles of a housing project. Each charge carried several years of prison time.
His lawyer said that if Alexander didn't agree to the 26-year sentence, he could be at risk for a sentence of 30 years or more, with no possibility of parole.
Alabama's marijuana sentencing guidelines are harsh, with mandatory minimum sentences a normal part of the process. Alexander seems not to have understood the nature of charges against him, or his options in fighting the charges. Family and friends say his attorney, who claimed to be pro-marijuana, mishandled the case and sold Webster Alexander out.
Sadly, these kinds of extreme sentences for minor drug offenses are quite common in Alabama. In a joint letter to the Huntsville Times, printed on January 12, 2003, two drug war prisoners explained their lengthy sentences.
One prisoner, Timothy Coffman, said that in December 2002 he was sentenced to 15 years for possession of one gram of marijuana rolled into a joint. "My appointed attorney repeatedly told me if I didn't plead guilty I'd have a jury trial," wrote Coffman, "and if I lost at trial I could receive up to life in prison."
The other prisoner, David White, was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 1992 for possession of less than $5 worth of cocaine. "I served seven years in prison, paroled out and worked four years with no problems," wrote White, "until I failed to report to my parole officer one time. This cost me my parole."
Hope and controversy
Although it is common for Alabama marijuana defendants to be sentenced to longer prison sentences than those given to violent criminals, Alexander's very lengthy sentence has created a firestorm of controversy, protests, a letter-writing campaign, and international media coverage.
As this article is being written, Alexander is waiting for his final sentencing hearing, and trying to remain hopeful despite his feeling that, "I was set up and now they are making an example out of me."
"I did everything they told me to do to rehabilitate myself after I was arrested," Alexander says. "I finished my diploma. I went into a six-month drug treatment program where they showed us how to do fun activities without using drugs. I got a job."
"I was never in trouble in school. I didn't sell at school. I don't think of myself as a bad person," says the worried youth. "I really don't know what is going on with my case, or why they are coming down so hard on me. Nobody tells me anything; my family doesn't have the money to pay more for lawyers. I figure I'm going to end up in prison the rest of my damn life, and I don't know what to do about it."
Loretta Nall is an Alabama activist who has become an outspoken public advocate for marijuana law reform.
Nall is a feisty Alabama native, artisan and mother of two who makes pro-marijuana videos for Pot-TV, writes pro-pot letters to local newspapers, and appears on Alabama television stations arguing with drug warriors about marijuana.
Nall is also the founder of the Alabama Marijuana Party, part of a growing network of over a dozen state-level Marijuana Parties. This new political network is being patterned in large part after the strategies and success of the BC Marijuana Party.
Nall helped draw media attention to Webster's sentence, along with other ultra-harsh sentences doled out for those convicted of minor pot crimes. Yet she herself is also experiencing persecution for her politics and beliefs.
Soon after she became an activist, she endured a terrifying helicopter and SUV raid of her home, conducted last September without a search warrant.
A few weeks later, she arrived home to find cops swarming inside her family home near Alexander City.
After ransacking her house and arresting her on contrived charges of possessing a few pot seeds, a stem, and drug paraphernalia, authorities harassed her young children, and prevented her from gaining access to arrest records she needs to see in order to prove her innocence.
In the next issue of Cannabis Culture, we'll learn how Loretta Nall successfully fought for freedom ? taking on police, school officials, judges, narks, and even her own attorney. We'll also find out if Webster has begun serving his 26-year prison term.