That sting operation would turn Davis into Virginia’s “Marijuana Martyr” — a title he still embraces nearly 50 years later.
Davis was sentenced to 40 years in prison and fined $20,000 — a punishment many decried as excessive and motivated by racism. His case eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court.
But earlier this month, Davis, now 76, witnessed the first day Virginians could legally possess and grow marijuana in their homes. To him, it was a bittersweet step of progress.
“It’s somewhat rewarding to get to say, ‘I guess I wasn’t so crazy after all, 50 years ago,’” Davis said.
He continues to think of all the time lost for him and so many others who were penalized.
“You need to make it up to a lot of people,” Davis said. “And not just Roger, but there’s thousands of people in Virginia that got screwed just like I did.”
Virginia is one of 18 states, plus the District of Columbia, to legalize adult recreational use of marijuana. The push for legalization across the nation comes from a growing acceptance of the drug and efforts to minimize the effects of criminalization on people of color. Despite the push for legalization, the drug remains an illegal substance federally and in many states, and people are still being arrested. According to FBI crime data, 500,395 people in the United States were arrested in 2019 for marijuana possession.
Davis became a symbol after he was convicted in 1974 on two marijuana counts, one for possession with intent to sell and one for actually selling. He was sentenced to 20 years and $10,000 fine for each count — totaling 40 years in prison and $20,000.
“My goodness, what could a man accomplish in 40 years?” Davis said recently, reflecting on his sentence.
Over the course of the next decade, multiple federal judges would call the sentence “cruel and unusual punishment.” They would overturn the ruling, then the state would appeal, until the Supreme Court sided with the state in 1982. According to records of the case, in 1976, the average sentence for an offense like Davis’s was about three and a half years, and the maximum was fifteen years.
Under Virginia’s new law legalizing marijuana, adults 21 and older may possess up to an ounce and cultivate up to four marijuana plants per household. Possessing more than an ounce but less than a pound of marijuana would result in a civil penalty of up to $25; more than a pound is considered a felony punishable by up to 10 years in jail and a fine of up to $250,000. Purchasing and selling marijuana, however, is still illegal as retail sales will not begin until 2024.
The attitude was entirely different when Davis was arrested. Like many places in the early 1970s, a war against drugs was being waged in Wythe County. According to The Washington Post, dozens of people were arrested beginning in 1973.
Rolling Stone reported that in January 1973, Wythe County Sheriff Buford Shockley declared that “illegal drugs and pornography are the biggest and most important problems in the county.”
Davis was one of 10 young people arrested one day in March of that year and charged with selling either marijuana or LSD.
“I was a young guy cruising around,” Davis told The Post in 1982. “I was about freedom, good times, a lot of friends, into everything everybody else was into. I don’t think anybody hardly thought about the future.”
Prosecutors said Davis was an active drug dealer, according to records of the case. Davis had been previously charged with selling LSD, and would be arrested for having marijuana again after his infamous arrest.
Davis, his legal team and activist groups painted a different story about his arrest, according to Post archives. They argued that his long sentence was not just about the marijuana but also about race because Davis was married to a White woman.
Disproportionate enforcement among people of color and the impact of criminalization has been a major driving force behind democrats’ push for legalization in Virginia and around the country. According to an ACLU study, Black people in Virginia were about 3.4 times more likely to be arrested on marijuana charges than White people.
Virginia legislators originally voted in February to legalize adult recreational use with plans for the law to come into effect in 2024. But, after a push from activists and concerns over three more years of pot-related penalties, lawmakers voted in April to move up legalization to July 1.
“Marijuana laws have been used as a weapon against Black and Brown people for decades,” ACLU of Virginia legislative director Ashna Khanna said.
Khanna said people of color have suffered lifelong consequences from marijuana arrests, struggling to find jobs and housing, and bouncing in and out of the legal system.
Davis was there the day Gov. Ralph Northam signed the bill into law. He said he was elated to see legalization, but as he looked around the room, he thought to himself: how many of these people had smoked a blunt before?
Davis said his mission now is to make sure the new laws will be applied equitably.
“Black people have been done wrong for so long,” Davis said. “This is an opportunity to do something right.”
In 1982, Davis’ sentence was reduced to 20 years by then-Gov. Charles S. Robb. He was eventually paroled, then arrested again in the early 90s for selling cocaine. He was sentenced to another 20 years in prison in 1993.
Davis looks back at his time in prison and tries to reflect. He now lives in Roanoke, where he works laying concrete foundations. In his spare time he’s an artist, carving wooden necklaces, beads and walking sticks. He’s even written a book that he’s hoping to get published.
“I've lived through the system and learned a lot,” Davis said. “I learned a lot from the system's mistakes. I learned a lot from my own mistakes.”
Davis is still smoking pot, too. It brings him peace, and it brings him closer to his God, he said. He’s been smoking for 50 years and has no intention of stopping.
That’s the Marijuana Martyr tradition.
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