Webster Alexander is 19 years old and his life’s dreams are already lost. A teenage fervor for marijuana has cost him more than lapses of memory or bronchitis.
Alexander’s relationship with pot has cost him 26 years, a hit by the drug war in the U.S. designed to stop the use of marijuana. The results have been questionable as the U.S. continues to have one of the highest marijuana consumption rates in the world.
In the buckle of the Bible Belt is Moulton, Ala., a town not much bigger than a black-eyed pea, lost in America’s Deep South. Folks here don’t normally get much international interest. They like it that way.
But that changed in January when Lawrence County Circuit Judge Philip Reich sentenced Alexander to 26 years in prison after convicting him of selling 28-gram handfuls of marijuana on four different occasions to an undercover cop masquerading as a student.
It was Alexander’s first offence and he pleaded guilty. His sentence—a plea bargain—can’t be appealed, but his lawyer is working to show Alexander has changed his life. A judge can give Alexander probation instead of jail time for some, or even all, of the 26 years.
“That’s a long, long time to go,” Alexander said. “I am just so sorry for what I’ve done. I want the court to see that. I am a completely different man than I was then.”
Alexander’s story first appeared on news wires in January, a non-descript item filed by an Associated Press reporter who lives nearby. But when pro-marijuana activists caught wind of it, Alexander’s face was soon plastered on posters, first in Canada and then around the world.
Sympathizers cried foul over what could be one of the harshest sentences ever given to a first-time offender convicted of small-time dealing. Comparative sentencing statistics aren’t available in the U.S.
A similar conviction in Canada would likely lead to a conditional sentence or fine. Even people convicted for running multi-million-dollar grow operations rarely see jail time here.
If there is any such thing as a good ol’ southern boy—using the best possible meaning of the phrase—Alexander is it.
Rugged and weathered with a farm-tough bluntness mixed with tender sweetness, Alexander is all Alabama. He was raised in a dirt-brown trailer on the limb of a horizon-swallowing cattle pasture where he still lives.
He grew up with two brothers, two step-brothers and a sister. One brother is in jail, another in the air force. Now he lives with his parents, sister, niece, nephew, a pit bull named Redneck, a dachshund with a nose for trouble, cages full of chickens, 10 miniature goats and some cockatiels.
With a C-grade average, football was his future. Entering high school, he was a top player in the county. The trophies he earned line shelves inside a garage his dad turned into a rec room on their property.
Alexander was counting on a college scholarship to pay for an education that, he hoped, would lead to a job as a physical education teacher and basketball coach.
Alexander’s conviction means he can’t ever earn a scholarship, can never be a teacher and makes him ineligible for a post-secondary loan, according to state law. He can’t even vote.
Marijuana was part of the culture Alexander grew up in. His dad has been busted twice, most recently in 1999, and grew plants on the property. Alexander smoked his first joint when he was just nine years old. At 17 he was smoking regularly.
“A lot of the reason I started smoking was my friends because they all did drugs and it just seemed like the thing,” Alexander said.
“If I never got started on drugs, none of this would have happened.”
Last February, Alexander needed just a couple of credits to get his high school diploma. That’s when a 19-year-old transfer student enrolled at Lawrence County High. The second day the “new kid” was in school, he was making plans to buy pot from Alexander who had no idea he was befriending a 26-year-old narc from the Lawrence County Drug Task Force.
On April 9, as the agent set up his fourth buy from Alexander, police swarmed the Alexanders’ trailer. The gig was up. They arrested Alexander at gunpoint. Alexander’s mom Wanda called during the raid, when the police were in her home.
“I asked to speak with my son and the man who answered said, ‘This is the Lawrence County Sheriff’s Department, you can’t talk to Webster,’ “ Wanda said. “All I could think was ‘I got to get home. I got to get home to my baby.’ “
Wanda said she couldn’t believe what she saw when she made it home.
“My house was destroyed and they had taken my baby to jail.”
Alexander was charged with four counts of distribution of marijuana, one count of first-degree possession and one count of possession of drug paraphernalia for rolling papers, scales and a pipe.
“When they first got to my house, I was good,” Alexander said. “I thought it was going to be how when other people get busted, they go in and soon are released.
“But I found out that wasn’t going to happen to me. The cell door slammed. The bars crashed shut in front of me and I realized how serious it was. I was scared to death that I was never going to get out.”
His uncle was able to put together the $90,000 needed to bail him out.
The news of Alexander’s arrest was actually welcomed by his family. They wanted him off drugs and this was possibly the wake-up call they had been seeking. But when Wanda was told how many years in prison the prosecution was seeking, everything changed.
“If they had busted him and not tried to hang him, I would have shook their hands but they’re trying to hang my son,” Wanda said. “That’s what I don’t understand. He’s just a child.”
Enter John Mayes, a lawyer for 26 years, the only one in the county who handles nothing but criminal cases. He is big, conservative and southern. In his small brick office in the middle of Moulton he has a portrait of Ronald Reagan and a life-size painting of southern Civil War Gen. Robert E. Lee. He calls people from the north “Yankees.”
Even for a staunch southern conservative, the marijuana laws seem oddly harsh in Alabama. The state does not differentiate between so-called hard drugs, such as heroin and cocaine, and a soft drug like marijuana.
“Alabama does not rehabilitate criminals,” Mayes said. “We just punish them. They don’t even teach trades in prison.”
When Mayes worked out Alexander’s plea bargain, his office was bombarded. Powerful marijuana lobby groups swung into action and soon everybody wanted to talk to Mayes: CNN, New York newspapers, media in Holland.
“I could have been a celebrity but I do not want that,” Mayes said. “I didn’t do any interviews. I’m here to help Webster.”
The pro-marijuana lobby group NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) was the first to make contact. NORML posted Alexander’s story on the Internet. Representatives called the Alexanders and promised what seemed like the world. Webster’s mom said they promised to launch an appeal and pay for her son’s defence.
“We’re just a small town country family, we didn’t know what to do, we didn’t know how to contact these people,” Wanda said.
“The marijuana groups promised us so much. They said they would help and they wanted us to fire John.”
Local pro-marijuana lobbies wanted Alexander to be a spokesman.
“There is no question in my mind if the marijuana groups were involved, Webster would have no chance at probation and he would be going to jail for every one of those 26 years,” Mayes said. “And they’d probably raise money using his name as he was serving those 26 years.
“There were people who were going to say, ‘Judge, don’t put Webster to prison because the law he was convicted under is stupid and if you weren’t so stupid, judge, you would realize these drugs should be legal.’ “
The Alexanders never saw a nickel from any marijuana group. They never fired Mayes, who is leading an appeal.
Mayes is hopeful Alexander can avoid some of the jail time, convinced it is the best decision he’s made.
Alexander now undergoes regular drug tests and has been clean for a year. He got a high school diploma from a private school he enrolled in.
He volunteers with young kids, telling them his story, warning them to try to live a good, clean life.
“I just hope I can go to college and live a good life,” Alexander said. “I am just hoping I can turn this all around.”
Mayes is with him.
“The penitentiary is no place for a young person,” Mayes said. “It’s like throwing someone in a garbage can.”