At twenty-eight years of age, Loretta Nall appears to be a typical wife and mother, but there was nothing typical about what happened to her on September 17. That day her quiet rural Alabama life was invaded by agents of the Alexander City Police Department, the Tallapoosa County Sheriff's Department, the Tallapoosa County Narcotics Task Force, the Marijuana Eradication Project, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and the Alabama Bureau of Investigation. She had been puzzled by the appearance of a helicopter that had hovered over her house for nearly an hour, but the puzzle was solved when all of the police vehicles began pulling onto her property.
You see, exactly one week earlier, Loretta had taken a trip to Vancouver, BC, to visit Marc Emery, a well-known Canadian marijuana-legalization activist. She took the trip not to get high, but to learn the art of political activism. Loretta had it in her head to start an Alabama arm of the American Marijuana Party.
Upon her arrival in Canada, she notified customs officials where she was going and whom she was going to see, at which point all her papers were seized and she was held in limbo for several hours while the Canadian authorities checked her background to see if they had any reason to stop her from entering the country. Then they returned her passport and told her she was free to go. Loretta had no police record. That is, she didn't have one, until last Wednesday.
Loretta is convinced that the sudden appearance of the authorities at her doorstep is a direct result of her trip to Canada. She claims that no one would have had any reason to suspect her of anything. She leads a quiet life rearing two children. Knowing her rights (something the police probably assumed a high-school dropout in rural Alabama would know nothing about), Loretta gave the authorities permission to search outside her house, trying to spare herself a huge hassle, but she insisted that if they wanted to come inside, they would need to get a warrant. When Loretta brought out her video camera to record what they were doing, they high-tailed it off her property.
Less than a month later, Loretta formally founded the Alabama Marijuana Party, and a little more than a month after that, on November 7, she had her first letter to the editor published in the Birmingham News calling for the legalization of marijuana. On November 13, Judge Kim Taylor of the Tallapoosa County District Court received a request from the Tallapoosa County Sheriff's Department to issue a search warrant for Loretta's property on the basis of an alleged anonymous phone-in tip that she was growing marijuana inside her house. The search warrant was issued, and less than three hours later, it was executed.
Loretta returned home from a morning of job hunting to discover that the police had broken into her home. What did the police find after breaking in Loretta's front door? Well, they found a mess. Loretta, by her own admission, is not the world's best housekeeper, but the police did a fine job of making an even bigger mess by ransacking her house, looking for a crop that didn't exist. Of course, one wouldn't expect to find a marijuana crop in her diaries, which were seized, or in the plates of catnip, also seized, or in her copy of the November 7 Letter to the Editor, seized, or in the Salvia leaves in the freezer, seized (Mr. Nall is a horticulturist), or in the printed materials regarding marijuana and political action, seized.
The police did not even stop to think twice about sifting through the ashes contained in an urn, the ashes of Loretta's son who had died at the age of three months of SIDS.
So what did the police get for all their efforts? One marijuana stem, three seeds, which they claim to have found in an envelope on Loretta’s printer, and a package of cigarette papers. Not content with harassing Loretta by ransacking her house, the police called in the Alabama Department of Human Resources, whose agents declared Loretta's home unfit for her children. They informed her that if she did not have a place to send the children to stay, then the state would take them away.
Loretta had not truly been afraid, until then. She had been certain the police would find nothing but an unclean home when they searched. It hadn't occurred to her how far the state would go to punish her for her activism. She hadn't realized she might lose her children. Her son and daughter were brought to her mother's house, some fifty miles away, but only after the agents of the state questioned her five-year-old daughter and ten-year-old son relentlessly. According to Mr. Nall, the authorities repeatedly asked leading questions of the little girl regarding how painful it was when Loretta brushed her hair. According to Loretta's son, the social service agents seemed quite interested in whether pornographic email was received in the house. As any little longhaired girl can tell you, hair gets tangled; as any Internet user can tell you, pornography is ubiquitous.
Loretta was handcuffed and taken to jail, where she was formally booked for possession of marijuana and paraphernalia. She was held for several hours while her husband was given the bureaucratic runaround in his attempts to get her released. The police wanted to make sure the Nalls knew they were helpless in the face of the state’s power.
The irony is, Loretta doesn't feel helpless. She feels empowered by what has happened to her. She is determined to continue the fight. Her determination is all the more amazing because Loretta and her husband are not well off. They have a modest livelihood, and this fight could cost them thousands of dollars. Mr. Nall is employed as a laborer in a nursery, and Loretta is currently unemployed. She dreams of becoming a writer, a high aspiration for a woman with a GED, who married at 16 and had her first child at 18.
Loretta might not have an advanced education, but she does have intelligence, and even more important, she has a conscience. She wasn't born an activist; she was made into one. She watched as several friends had their careers and families destroyed by marijuana convictions. To her, such punishment was plain cruelty, and she couldn't and still cannot understand how Americans can sit idly by and watch as the government turns the lives of thousands upon thousands of people upside down over something as innocuous as marijuana. After all, as it says on her Alabama Marijuana Party website, not a single person has ever been killed by cannabis.
Loretta is like so many of the other John and Jane Does who have gone before her, who have fought for what they believe to be right. For Loretta, there is no sitting back and just accepting what the state decrees. She wants everyone to know that disagreeing with an immoral public policy doesn't make you un-American, it doesn't make you evil, and it doesn't make you anti-social. She wants to know what kind of country and what kind of people we have become when the police can search our homes simply because we have exercised our First Amendment rights. She wants to shout from the rooftops that we as Americans have a responsibility to fight for justice and freedom. If that isn't the American way, what is?
Meet Loretta Nall: American.
November 18, 2002