On a sunny September day last year, Loretta Nall was busy with chores at her rural home near Alexander City, Alabama.
The 28-year-old Alabama native was an artist, small-town girl, mother of two, and occasional pot smoker.
“I wasn’t political at all,” Nall says now. “I was a country girl who liked pot, made candles, and raised my kids.”
Nall’s time as a regular country girl ended on September 17, 2002, courtesy of a military-style raid that literally came out of the blue.
“I heard this horrendous noise,” Nall says, in her steely Southern drawl, “so I went outside and a huge helicopter was hovering over my place. It just stayed there, making me deaf, and scaring all our animals. It made me really pissed off. So I started filming it with my video camera.”
The intrepid videographer filmed the circling copter for nearly an hour, but her filming was interrupted when four huge unmarked SUVs raced up her driveway.
A team of men jumped out and told Nall that the helicopter crew had spotted marijuana growing on acreage around Nall’s trailer.
The men did not have a search warrant. Nall tried to stop them from searching, but they traversed her property anyway, looking for pot plants they never found.
“I kept arguing with them, but they didn’t care,” Nall recalls. “They kept threatening to get a search warrant and tear up my trailer. Finally, I got fed up and told them I was going to get my video camera. In the 30 seconds that it took me to go to the trailer and get the camera, they all got together in a group and then ran to their vehicles and tore out of here. They left so fast that they ran over our fence.”
Birth of an activist
Nall found the raid very troubling. After all, she notes, armed men who refused to identify themselves had invaded her property. Nall knew marijuana crimes were taken seriously in Alabama; she’d been following the case of 18-year-old high school student Webster Alexander, caught selling a few ounces of pot to a cop posing as a student, and sentenced to 26 years in prison for it (CC#43, Alabama pot prison state).
The day after the raid, Nall started calling government officials. Nobody would tell her who conducted the raid, or why. Finally, she phoned Captain Wade Miller of the Alexander City Police Department, after an official told her he was in charge of the helicopter raids and the “anti-marijuana task force.”
“He gets paid by my tax dollars, but he was so rude,” Nall said. “I asked him how much money we are spending on these raids, why police are invading people’s lives like a bunch of Nazis. He refused to confirm anything or provide any information. He acted like I had no right to even be asking.”
Nall was already familiar with the world of activism sponsored by seed merchant Marc Emery. She asked people on Cannabis Culture’s online forums what to do about the raid, and was encouraged by Emery and others to fight back by forming the Alabama Marijuana Party (AMP), which is now one of 20 fledgling political parties seeking official status in the United States, under the umbrella of the United States Marijuana Party (USMJP), founded by Canadian activist Chuck Beyer, one of the founding members of the BC Marijuana Party (CC#27, Pot party politics).
“I was impressed by the Canadian Marijuana Party and the BC Marijuana Party in particular,” Nall explains. “After I formed the Alabama party, Chuck and the other members voted me president of the USMJP.”
Nall now volunteers many hours per day helping the 18 existing US Marijuana Party chapters, and those who want to form a party in their own state. She notes that many states have passed laws that make it hard if not impossible for third parties to gain access to the electoral process.
“In Alabama I would have to get 400,000 signatures to qualify for ballot access, thanks to an anti-democratic law they just passed,” she complains. “But in some states, new parties have a good chance of qualifying. Hawaii stands the best chance as they only have to acquire 670 signatures. Mississippi only needs 1000 signatures. In Florida, you can buy your way onto the ballot.”
Nall and her husband had prior experience with website design, computer graphics, and videography, so they created an exciting website for the AMP.
“I also started writing letters to newspapers,” Nall reports. “On November 7, the Birmingham News published my letter that said: ‘It is time to demand an end to cannabis prohibition and the harsh drug laws that do more harm to society than the drug itself will ever do. It is time for change.’ I signed it ‘Loretta Nall, Alabama Marijuana Party.'”
Green goose shit
Less than a week after the newspaper letter was published, Nall learned a harsh lesson about the consequences of public marijuana advocacy.
On November 13, she came home after doing errands and found a squadron of Tallapoosa County sheriff officers swarming her home.
“They were already in the house when I got home,” Nall says. “They were tearing the place apart. Captain Wade Miller was hacking through my computer, and when he saw that I had a file that contained my notes from the September conversation with him, he called me a bitch.”
Nall was surprised to see that the raid was being led by Officer Eric McCain, a “school resource officer” whose normal job was to patrol the elementary school attended by Nall’s two children ? Bell, six, and Alex, 10.
According to Nall, as many as 15 officers were involved in the raid. Nall’s husband grows legal commercial plants that are used by florists and nurseries; when officers discovered his indoor grow room, they were ecstatic.
“They saw the grow lights shining under the door and they thought they had found what they were looking for,” Nall recalls. “Then they went in and found out these were all legal plants, and it made them really frustrated. So they found some catnip that was lying under the lights drying, and other legal plants from our freezer. They seized that as evidence and sent it to the state crime lab.”
Officers also looked for evidence outside.
“They were running around out there in the yard, and then on their hands and knees, examining piles of fresh goose shit that our birds make,” Nall says, laughing at the memory.
Nall says the police called in representatives of a government child-protection agency, the Department of Human Resources, to evaluate whether Nall’s alleged drug use constituted an unsafe condition that would trigger removal of her children from her home.
She was confident that the raid would end as the other one did, with police finally leaving her property after coming up empty-handed.
“We didn’t have any pot,” she explains. “But then all of a sudden McCain says he found a stem and three seeds in a FedEx envelope. They also found a small scale that we use to weigh ingredients for making candles. Those scales have never been used to weigh marijuana. They arrested me and charged me with possession of marijuana and paraphernalia, which was the candle scales. Then they booked me at the Tallapoosa County Jail.”
Hundreds of thousands of people are busted for marijuana in the US every year, but few if any have fought back as hard against their charges as Loretta Nall has.
At first, she did what almost every pot defendant does ? she tried to find an attorney.
“It was harder than I thought, and it was hard to pay for it,” she explains. “When you’ve been arrested, you’re desperate, broke, and scared. It’s hard to make good business decisions in that frame of mind. Getting an attorney is a very special kind of business decision; it can mean the difference between freedom and jail. How do you know if an attorney is good at pot cases? In many cases you don’t ? you just take the attorney’s word for it, even though the attorney is often just trying to collect another paycheck. A lot of other drug war victims I’ve talked to told me their attorneys were in with the cops, the judge, and the prosecutor. Or maybe the attorney just doesn’t care, or doesn’t have enough legal skills to defend you. You really have to work hard to make sure the attorney is doing everything possible as soon as possible to get rid of the charges. You can’t just automatically trust your attorney. They work for you, but you have to make them understand that.”
Nall retained Birmingham attorney Rick Lyerly. She told him that she was innocent, that there had been no pot in her house, that McCain had told her the search warrant was based on an anonymous tip, that the raiders had seized political and personal materials that the search warrant did not specify as confiscatable items, and that she believed the raid was in response to her pro-pot public activities.
Lyerly asked the state to turn over all documents related to the case, and to also allow him to examine the marijuana allegedly seized from Nall’s house.
From November 2002 onward, Lyerly contacted the District Attorney’s office and other officials, trying to get documents and other materials that would detail how and why police had visited his client’s home and arrested her.
No information was provided; Nall became increasingly impatient and angry at the process.
“The way I look at it, they came to my house while I was alone, messed up my life, planted drugs in my house, arrested me, scared my kids, and cost me a lot of trouble. I want to know why they did it, and I want to prove my innocence. But they wouldn’t even give us the materials we needed for our defense. It was like there is no justice possible in this system,” she said.
In January 2003, Nall got shocking information that helped explain the cause of the November raid.
“Alex and Bell came home telling me that government people, including Eric McCain, had questioned them about my parenting skills and asked if we had enough food in the house. They were also asked if they had ever seen me smoke any green leaves,” she says. “People from the Department of Human Resources told me a complaint had been filed against me, saying I was starving my children. They actually came out here and looked in my refrigerator and cabinets.”
Further evidence that Nall’s children were being targeted by the drug warriors came during a court hearing in February, when Nall and Lyerly gained access to the affidavit McCain had presented to Judge Kim Taylor, when seeking Taylor’s signature on the search warrant that was used to authorize the November raid.
“The affidavit said that Bell had told her kindergarten teacher, Beth Shaw, that she wanted to bring a leaf to school for show and tell, but that she couldn’t do it, and that she had seen mommy throw the leaves outside. So this innocent statement from a little girl was interpreted as having something to do with marijuana, and Shaw told the school’s police officer, Eric McCain about it. The affidavit says McCain had seen my pro-pot letter to the editor in the Birmingham News. So he puts together what Bell allegedly said with my letter, and he uses that to get a search warrant, one that could have been served at night, and which was served in my absence. I could not believe that any judge would sign a warrant with such flimsy reasoning and information,” Nall says. “The only funny thing is that this explains why McCain and the other officers were examining green goose shit in my yard during the raid ? they thought Bell was telling them that I threw marijuana out in the yard, and they figured that maybe the geese ate it. Maybe they could have seized the goose shit as evidence!”
After seeing the affidavit, Lyerly became convinced that Nall was a victim of political persecution.
“It appears to me that Loretta was raided because she exercised her first amendment right to free speech by writing a letter to the editor,” the lawyer explained.
Lyerly again filed a series of motions designed to force police and prosecutors to provide access to all the case documents and materials. But as winter turned to spring and Nall lived in constant fear of another raid where illegal drugs would again be planted in her trailer by police, Lyerly was unable to get any cooperation at all from the judge and other government officials.
Nall has instructed Lyerly to file a “writ of mandamus” that will order presiding judge Kim Taylor to force the State to honor Nall’s constitutional rights. She says Taylor shouldn’t be the one handling the case anyway, because “he signed the faulty search warrant and he’s just as guilty as McCain and all the rest of them.”
Lyerly and other attorneys note that a writ of mandamus is one of the most powerful challenges a citizen can throw at government. It essentially alleges that a judge or other officials are mandated to follow procedures and law that they have so far refused to follow.
“I find it bizarre that the poor state of Alabama has all this money and time to play games with a person falsely charged with two misdemeanors,” Nall says indignantly. “When you have to file a writ to get a judge to follow the law, that’s pretty bad. The worst part is, even though a trial is scheduled for later this year, I really don’t know how or when this will get resolved. It feels like we live in a fascist state where they can arrest you on false charges and never provide you any information other than that you are going to jail.”