Want the best of VICE News straight to your inbox? Sign up here.
For two juvenile cannabis plants and less than $400 worth of weed, Quan Holt has been treated like a drug kingpin.
The weed was medicinal. The 23-year-old father of two bought it from a website called Be Pain Free Global after being hit by an 18-wheeler truck more than two years ago. But in Phenix City, Alabama, where he lives, weed for any purpose is still illegal, and cops arrested him on serious drug charges last year. They also took his Dodge Challenger, nearly $6,000 in cash, and his licensed guns for good measure.
“It was almost the perfect storm. If you look at stereotyping—here’s a young Black kid that’s in a flashy car, he’s got guns, he’s got money, and he’s got some drugs on him—there’s an automatic assumption, ‘Hey, he must be dealing,’” Mike Segrest, Holt’s attorney, told VICE News. “That’s just not the case here.”
Eight months later, Holt still can’t get his stuff back, which is worth about $60,000 in total. The Lee County District Attorney’s Office alleges that his car and weapons were used or at least “intended” for manufacturing, transporting, selling, buying, possessing, or concealing a drug. And while Holt is presumed innocent until proven otherwise, his property—which is also accused of breaking the law—is not.
A process known as civil forfeiture allows law enforcement agencies nationwide to seize—and then keep—items they believe are somehow involved in a crime. In 2018 alone, 42 states, the District of Columbia, and the federal government raked in more than $3 billion, the Institute for Justice found. And Alabama has some of the worst civil asset forfeiture laws in the nation. Law enforcement agencies there get to keep 100% of the proceeds from the property they take.
“Marijuana has done nothing but help me. The only thing that’s hurt me is because I was arrested because of it.”
Now, Holt is fighting the charges against him—and to get his property back. His attorney says there’s no evidence he was selling the cannabis he used.
“I hope they see it for what it was and not for what they want it to have been,” Holt said of his medical cannabis use. “They’ll see I was only using it for personal relief. I wasn’t gaining anything from it besides a better, healthier self.”
Holt, who has never been in trouble with the law before, started smoking weed after his horrific accident in November 2018. The former college football player had gotten out of his car on a Georgia road and was pushing a stranded motorist’s vehicle from behind when he was hit by a large truck. His left leg had to be amputated above the knee, and he had to have plates and screws fixed into his fractured pelvis. His right femur was broken, his liver was lacerated, his spine was injured, and his bladder ruptured twice.
The pain was substantial. But medicinal cannabis quelled his discomfort enough that he was eventually able to get back to living his life. He even picked up playing wheelchair basketball. Using settlement money from the accident, he also purchased his car, his home, his weapons, and, importantly, his weed.
“Marijuana has done nothing but help me,” Holt said. “The only thing that’s hurt me is because I was arrested because of it.”
Holt’s chiropractor was the one who suggested that he check out Be Pain Free Global. The website refers people to telehealth providers in California who can recommend medical cannabis and mails its products to them.
Holt believed what he was doing was legal and emphasized that Be Pain Free Global has helped him “tremendously.” (The website did not respond to VICE News’ request for comment.)
But Holt got caught after his neighbor—who happens to be a police detective in Georgia, according to court documents—took a photo of one of his outdoor potted weed plants and sent it to a special agent with the Alabama State Bureau of Investigation. That agent then got a search warrant for Holt’s property.
On July 16, agents with the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency went to Holt’s property and found 90 grams of cannabis, THC gummies, five packs of THC vape cartridges, and a bottle of THC oil in a briefcase in his car, according to court documents. Agents also found the two plants outside.
Holt was detained the same day, although he was quickly bailed out of jail. He’s accused of unlawful manufacture of a controlled substance, possessing cannabis for something other than personal use, and possession/receipt of a controlled substance, but he hasn’t been indicted. A trial in the civil forfeiture case is scheduled for December.
Holt’s attorney believes the charges against him might’ve been beefed up to justify police taking his items. The maximum fines from his criminal case could run him $50,000 to $60,000.
“Based on him having two marijuana plants at his house—juvenile marijuana plants that would have a street value of absolutely nothing—they have charged him with manufacturing a controlled substance like this was some sort of meth lab,” Segrest said.
“To have any charge where he could be fined that much is absolutely ridiculous. You’re talking about taking everything that he’s got, except his home,” Segrest added.
A boon for cops
Civil forfeiture began as a means of taking ships from owners who were engaged in custom violations or smuggling on the seas, well outside of U.S. jurisdiction. But the modern version of the laws took off during the war on drugs as a method to dismantle criminal enterprises and drug lords. The FBI continues to describe the practice as a deterrent to “those who prey on the vulnerable for financial gain, including criminal organizations, drug dealers, terrorists, and white-collar criminals.”
Yet ordinary people are regularly targeted, even if they’re not charged with a crime. Individual cash forfeitures are also often small, which suggests these seizures continue for their ability to make money, not to fight crime. Police appear to increase their reliance on forfeiture when local budgets are tight, according to the Institute for Justice.
“There's been enormous abuse of civil forfeiture, in part because law enforcement directly profits from civil forfeiture and boosts their budgets,” said Louis Rulli, a University of Pennsylvania law professor. “It can lead to over-charging —even where there’s not evidence to warrant it—in order to protect against challenges to civil forfeiture.”
In Alabama, where Holt lives, 55% of the civil forfeiture cases where criminal charges are filed relate to cannabis, according to a 2018 report from the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice and the Southern Poverty Law Center. They reviewed court records from 1,110 civil forfeiture cases from 14 Alabama counties in 2015. What’s more, 64% of the defendants in cases with criminal charges were Black, despite comprising about 27% of the state population.
Thanks to those seizures, courts awarded Alabama law agencies $2.2 million across 827 cases, according to the groups’ report. Cops also got to keep 406 weapons, 119 vehicles, 95 electronic items, and 274 “miscellaneous items,” ranging from power tools to entire houses.
According to court documents, Holt’s property is currently in possession of the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, which made the arrest. If the objects are condemned, that agency will receive 70% of the cash it took from Holt, plus 70% of the money from the Challenger if it’s sold. The rest goes to the Lee County district attorney’s fund and the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences’ Auburn laboratory.
“This guy is not El Chapo,” said Leah Nelson, the research director of Alabama Appleseed Center for Law & Justice, which first documented Holt’s case at length in a report last month.
In pain, again
Holt said he wasn’t home when law enforcement agents arrived on July 16. His then-wife, whom he was separated from at the time and no longer living with, was there picking up clothes. She messaged Holt to come over to talk. Holt pulled into his driveway and was greeted with agents who had their guns drawn. He was immediately handcuffed.
In addition to what agents took from Holt, they collected a THC vape and four grams of weed from his ex-wife’s vehicle and purse, too.
“This guy is not El Chapo.”
Agents also seized $3,113 from his ex-wife’s purse, $5,380 from the center console of Holt’s car, and $813 from Holt’s “person.” Holt noted that he and his ex had a large amount of cash on them at the time because they were in a dispute and had withdrawn money from a shared account.
When agents took his Dodge Challenger, they also wound up keeping him from some of the more innocuous items inside, like clothing and shoes.
Asked about Holt’s case, a spokesperson for the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency said they couldn’t comment “due to pending litigation.”
Jessica Ventiere, the Lee County District Attorney Pro Tem, also noted in an email to VICE News that Holt’s criminal case is pending a review by a grand jury.
“As with every pending felony case, the facts and evidence will be thoroughly reviewed to ensure proper charging decisions are made,” Ventiere said. She declined to offer further comment.
In the meantime, the incident has left Holt scarred. In less than a year, he’s gone from having a nice, paid-off car to needing a ride everywhere he goes. He’s more paranoid and finds himself worried about officers showing up to take him to jail at any moment. And since he can’t use weed to treat his discomfort anymore, he’s also in pain.
“Instead of me smoking, I’m going to go by what the government says is the right way, which is prescription drugs that I could get addicted to,” Holt said.