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Black Man Jailed in Oklahoma 25 Days for Legal Herb


September-October 1998

On October 2, District Judge Harry Wyatt in Vinita, Oklahoma dismissed charges of driving under the influence against George Singleton, an African-American herbalist from Vermont. Wyatt said the state had not presented enough evidence for the jury. Singleton pled guilty to a charge of failing to display current license tags (Omer Gillham, "DUI Charge Dismissed," Tulsa World, October 3, 1998; Associated Press, "Judge Dismisses Cast That Stirred Racism Protests," Dallas Morning News, October 3, 1998).

Singleton, 49, who wears his hair in long dreadlocks, was stopped and arrested on February 27 by Oklahoma Highway Patrol Trooper Alvin Lavender, who said he was weaving and speeding. Lavender seized a bag of what he thought was marijuana, but was actually rosemary and mullein, herbs that Singleton uses to treat tuberculosis. Singleton, who works to pacify teenage gang members, involving them in organic gardening, was returning from his anti-gang work in California when he was arrested in Oklahoma.

After his arrest, he spent 25 days in jail. Singleton said he was told that he would be charged with carrying "an imitation controlled substance," but authorities resisted pursuing such a charge (Rik Espinosa, "State Law Lacks Herb Clause," Tulsa World, September 26, 1998).

Singleton was never charged with speeding or a drug offense but was charged with driving while intoxicated, despite that fact that tests showed no evidence of intoxicants in Singleton's blood. "We're continuing to pursue it because we feel he was under some type of influence that rendered him a danger on the roadway," said Craig County District Attorney Gene Haynes (Associated Press, "Man carrying only herbs charged with driving under the influence," Houston Chronicle, September 30, 1998).

"He's not guilty of anything but being black and having. . .dreadlocks and driving in Oklahoma," said James Hadley, Singleton's attorney. Singleton's case prompted protests outside the Oklahoma courthouse by protestors alleging that the charges were based on the defendant's race and appearance. Singleton's prosecution "gives us a black eye," said Hadley. "It makes us look like a bunch of rednecks. This guy was being persecuted rather than prosecuted." Craig County, population 14,000, is forty miles northeast of Tulsa astride Interstate 44, the logical winter route from Southern California to the Midwest and Northeast.

Prosecutors initially said they intended to appeal the dismissal decision. However, on October 13, Craig County Assistant District Attorney Clint Ward said his office will not appeal. In an editorial, Tulsa World wrote: "An outbreak of common sense in Craig County has spared the state further embarrassment" (Omer Gillham, "Craig County Drops Plans to Pursue DUI Case," Tulsa World, October 14, 1998; Editorial, "Common Sense: Charges Dropped Against Herbologist," Tulsa World, October 19, 1998).

Attorney James Hadley - P.O. Box 120, Vinita, OK 74301, Tel: (918) 256-7801, Fax: (918) 256-5961.

Craig County District Attorney - 301 W. Canadian Ave., Vinita, OK 74301, Tel: (918) 256-3320. Fax: (918) 256-3617