In March 1974, Roger Trenton Davis was sentenced to 40 years in prison for 9 ounces of marijuana, an unusually harsh punishment that would make him nationally known as the “marijuana martyr.”
Today, possession of small amounts of marijuana is legal in Virginia. Davis is a free man. And the Southwest Virginia native, now 75, is making the best of both things.
“That martyr? That’s who I am,” Davis said in an interview Thursday. “I believe that every person on the face of the earth should be allowed to enjoy God’s herb.”
Davis spent hard time in prison for possessing an amount of marijuana that, under laws that took effect July 1, in most circumstances would be punishable by no more than a $25 fine.
He hopes to use his story — which began in the 1970s when he was portrayed by Rolling Stone, High Times and Playboy magazines as a martyr for his cause — to help spread the word. “It’s knowledge that I can pass along to everybody else,” he said.
The governor of Virginia, for one, is listening.
Davis was invited to Richmond earlier this year to witness Gov. Ralph Northam sign a bill that made it legal for adults to possess an ounce or less of marijuana. For amounts of up to a pound, the penalty was reduced to a civil fine of $25.
Black people use marijuana at the same rate as whites, yet are three and a half times more likely to be charged, according to Alena Yarmosky, a spokeswoman for Northam. Davis is a Black man.
“Roger Trenton Davis is one of the many individuals whose life was upended by the disproportionate enforcement of marijuana laws — and we felt it was important he have the opportunity to join us as we put a stop to it,” Yarmosky wrote in an email.
In his first public interview since the law was passed, Davis wore a “Free the Weed” T-shirt and his hair was pulled back in long, grey dreadlocks. He was quick to smile when talking about his experiences under the old law, and just as quick to point out problems with the new one.
More needs to be done, he said. For example, a portion of the law that allows home cultivation of up to four marijuana plants does not apply to residents of public housing complexes and subsidized housing, which fall under federal regulations that still forbid marijuana.
A disproportionate number of those residents are Black and would remain disenfranchised, he said.
“Black people have to have an opportunity,” he said. “It should be equal and equitable to everyone. And if it’s not, what do I say to that? Get your knee off of my neck. Give us the same opportunity to come up.
“Hell, we’re 400 years behind.”
The legalization of cannabis, he added, is like “a Silicon Valley, or Apple computer, or a brand new stock, a brand new economic avenue. Well, you can’t close those doors on Black people.
“We’ve suffered for too long and too hard to be told no, on something that God gives us.”
Davis grew up in Rural Retreat, a predominantly white community in Wythe County.
By most accounts, he got along well with others. “He’s one of those people who is very charismatic by nature,” said Art Strickland, a Roanoke attorney who would later represent him. “People couldn’t help but like him.”
Davis began to dabble with drugs in high school. He later married a white woman, fueling speculation by him and others that resentment was building against him in the more conservative circles of the county.
Drugs and pornography were the worst problems of the day, the county sheriff proclaimed in 1973, according to a Rolling Stone article that described Davis and three others — who encountered similar experiences in different parts of the country — as marijuana martyrs.
An editorial in a local newspaper stated that “young Americans who smoke grass are of tremendous help to the communists … this nation can very easily crumble and fall like a tree with a rotten heart destroyed by termites,” the magazine reported.
It was in those times that Davis, then 28, was charged with distribution of marijuana and possession with intent to distribute.
“Roger was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and he committed the wrong crime, and it sort of followed him,” Strickland said.
A jury in Wythe County Circuit Court convicted Davis of both felonies in 1974 and sentenced him to 40 years in prison.
“From a legal standpoint, it would have been better if Davis had been a child molester,” the Rolling Stone article stated. “Then, by Virginia law, the maximum sentence he could have received would have been five years.”
In a petition filed in U.S. District Court, Davis claimed he was a victim of cruel and unusual punishment. Judge James Turk agreed. In throwing out the sentence three years later, Turk noted that the average punishment for dealing marijuana at the time was three years and two months.
The case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In January 1982, the high court ordered the 40-year sentence be reimposed, saying the federal courts should be reluctant to intervene when a state inmate complains of cruel and unusual punishment.
Davis was returned to prison. Several months later, in May 1982, then-Gov. Charles Robb rejected a pardon request but reduced his time to 20 years. Two years later, he was released on parole.
In his interview last week, Davis declined to talk in detail about the case, saying he was more focused on the future. “I’m not trying to look back 40-some years ago,” he said.
But in 2014, following the death of Turk, Davis called him a “dear friend, not just to me but to justice itself.”
“He was a dear friend to many of society’s enemies,” Davis wrote in an opinion piece published in The Roanoke Times. “Why? Because he truly believed in the redemption of the spirit and also the rehabilitation of a fallen man.”
Marijuana and the money it makes are two separate things, the way Davis sees it.
“Money is what makes the world go round,” he said. “It’s not smoking a damn joint. I’ve been doing that all my life, and it hasn’t done a damn thing for me.
“I’m broke as s---.”
While it remains illegal to buy or sell marijuana in Virginia, the General Assembly is expected to continue to decriminalize a drug that under federal law is listed as a Schedule 1 controlled substance. That means it has no accepted medical use and carries a high potential for abuse — at least in the eyes of the U.S. government.
Under current plans for Virginia, retail sales of marijuana are expected to begin Jan. 1, 2024. The law also creates two state panels that will work to include minorities in the marijuana industry.
Davis’ case, “like so many others, not only demonstrates the gross disparity in which marijuana laws have historically been enforced throughout Virginia, but also highlights why the Commonwealth is reexamining the failed and unjust policy of prohibition,” Jenn Michelle Pedini, head of the Virginia chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, wrote in an email.
Putting things more bluntly, Davis said he “wants to make sure the Black people of Virginia don’t get f---ed out of an opportunity.”
“Gov. Northam — God bless him, a wonderful man — he’s not giving us pot. He’s giving us all an equal opportunity. He don’t care if you grow that s- — or smoke it or what. But he does care about everybody being treated equally.”
Many people carry a criminal record for what is now, or soon will be, legal.
“And once your record is screwed up, with a felony, it’s screwed up forever. You can’t do s---. You can’t get a job,” Davis said. “That s- — has to cease.”
Virginia’s new marijuana laws lay out a timeline for the sealing of marijuana-related criminal records. Starting July 1, all records of misdemeanor possession with intent to distribute will be automatically removed from public view in state police records. Simple possession charges were sealed last year. Down the road, Virginians will have the opportunity to petition a court to seal felony records.
A state website explaining the law, www.cannabis.virginia.gov, says that “these criminal justice reforms will modernize the Commonwealth’s criminal record-keeping systems and remove barriers for Virginians seeking employment, housing, and education.”
“This is a beautiful time,” Davis said, “not just for Black people, but for everybody.”
There’s more to Davis’ drug history than a single case that drew a 40-year prison sentence.
At the time of his arrest in 1974, he was free on bond while appealing a five-year sentence he’d received for selling $10 worth of LSD to a police informant.
Following his release in 1984, he was convicted two more times of possessing marijuana in Roanoke, where he had moved and was living with his wife and daughter.
Commonwealth’s Attorney Donald Caldwell readily admits that Davis was treated harshly in 1974. But the celebrated title of “marijuana martyr” rings a bit hollow in light of the subsequent charges, he said.
Caldwell also pointed to the risks of applying modern-day views to long-ago cases.
“Laws change, and societal attitudes change,” he said. “But as a citizen of this country you are subject to the laws at the time. And if the laws change down the road, you might be right in terms of what society thinks at this time, but you weren’t right at the time of the crime.”
About five years ago, Caldwell’s office all but eliminated the prosecution of simple possession of marijuana cases.
While he has no problem with the state essentially doing the same thing, the prosecutor worries that the reform of cannabis laws will mean that police will no longer be able to cite the drug’s pungent odor as probable cause to search cars and homes — which often leads to the filing of more serious charges.
“One of my concerns is that not every marijuana user ends up as a heroin, meth or cocaine addict,” Caldwell said. “But an awful lot of heroin, meth and cocaine addicts started out using marijuana.”
And Davis would later turn to cocaine.
In 1991, Davis was charged with selling a kilogram of powder cocaine to undercover agents at a Roanoke golf course. In an unusual move, he pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.
Then 48 years old, Davis told a jury in U.S. District Court that he sold the drug to deliver a message from God: that white America is systematically killing Black people by first allowing the spread of deadly cocaine into their neighborhoods, then by bringing charges like the ones against him.
Defense attorney David Damico said recently that Davis seemed “very traumatized” by the racial elements that he believed began with his case in 1974.
A psychologist testified for the defense that Davis was legally insane. A second expert called by the government said he was not. The jury convicted Davis and imposed a 20-year sentence.
Now-retired Assistant U.S. Attorney Joe Mott was well aware of Davis’ celebrity status — “I was a Rolling Stone subscriber back in the day,” he said — but didn’t see that as a factor in the prosecution.
Rather, it was the large amount of cocaine involved, Davis’ past criminal record and a mandatory minimum sentence imposed by federal law that drove the 20-year sentence, he said.
In 2011, Davis was again released on parole.
He found work for a Roanoke construction company. At the age of 75, he does manual labor because, as a former convict, “my 401(k) is kind of f---ed up.”
Although Davis declined to talk in detail about his past in a recent interview with The Roanoke Times, it is the subject of a book he has written, “The Making of a Criminal.”
A manuscript contains stories and insights that he doesn’t want to disclose for free while he searches for a publisher.
But in a book proposal that he shared, Davis wrote that it is “about all that America wishes to conceal. But above all it is about redemption and truth.”
“Are men born criminal or is there something set up within the system specifically to make one such?” he asks. “Either way we do exist. Each one of us must take a walk through our own destiny and determine who and what we are.”
In the book, he wrote: “I have not kissed anyone’s ass & I don’t have to please anyone. I do have to tell the truth.”
That truth is unvarnished — much like Davis’ interview, which was sprinkled with obscenities.
The words were not spoken in anger. Rather, they seemed to be a genuine reflection of who he is, which includes injecting a healthy dose of humor in what could be a tragedy.
Davis was asked at one point whether his write-up in Rolling Stone made the front of the famed publication. It did not.
But even now, he said, “I’m still trying to make the cover of the Rolling Stone.”