HOLMBERG: What’s behind Roy Scherer’s 40-year fight to legalize marijuana in Virginia

Posted at 1:07 AM, Jan 29, 2015
and last updated 2015-01-29 08:28:16-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- Not unexpectedly Wednesday, a Senate justice committee in the Virginia General Assembly quickly stomped out a proposed bill by an Alexandria Democrat that would make simple possession of marijuana a civil offense, punishable by a $100 fine. Roy Scherer, Virginia’s first registered marijuana lobbyist, watched from the gallery, a place he has sat many times since he started pushing for decriminalization 43 years ago.

Roy Scherer, Virginia’s first registered marijuana lobbyist

Roy Scherer, Virginia’s first registered marijuana lobbyist

“Just stupid,” Scherer, now 72, said with his slow, Virginia gentleman way of speaking. He spoke of the waste of money for incarcerating pot smokers, the cost to society for enforcement and judicial process; the lost tens of millions of dollars of tax revenue that states like Colorado and Washington are seeing with the legalization of recreational use.

Here’s a law-and-order, pistol-packing, 2nd Amendment guy who was described in a 1973 Associated Press story as a “self-styled pot-smoking patriot,” working as a volunteer lobbyist because he believes criminalized marijuana has created a vast and destructive rift in society.

He and others have been a steady drip-drip-drip force at the GA that has slowly softened Virginia’s marijuana laws over the decades, for example making it a lesser offense to give a friend a little pot as opposed to selling it to them.

But yesterday’s proposal evoked a cough response from the Republican-controlled committee. It looks like a much softer approach with youngsters and their parents testifying about their need to have medicinal marijuana may create a more pleasant buzz in this year in the General Assembly.

A House committee heard about children with chronic seizures whose conditions have been vastly improved by medicinal marijuana.

Jennifer Collins, 15, testified. “I told them the truth . . . I went from having 300 seizures a day to having almost none on a really good day,” she told me. The difference in her life (while she was living in Colorado and was able to legally get it) was “just amazing,” she said.

Jennifer Collins

Jennifer Collins

That bill remains alive, but has a long way to go.

It’s fascinating, the relationship Virginia has had with marijuana, from the laws that required farmers to grow it in the early 1600s for ropes and sails to a big field of it in Abingdon, Va., that helped inspire the 1936 propaganda film, “Reefer Madness,” which played a small role in the criminalization of pot a year later.

Roy Scherer, one of Richmond’s characters, has been there for a good part of that history. Here’s a story I wrote about him for the Times-Dispatch almost 23 years ago, when he turned 50 and was in the midst of a break from his pot-lobbying. (Yes, when I interviewed him Wednesday for this story, he was at The Village Cafe.)


Richmond Times-Dispatch (VA) (Published as Richmond Times-Dispatch) - February 9, 1992

Author: Mark Holmberg; Staff writer

Somewhere between the "reefer madness" scare of the `30s and the "drug wars" of current times, there was a window of permissiveness.

And Roy Scherer.

He would be called "Marijuana Roy" by an irate drunk who shot him in the lower chest. He would be called as an emergency expert when a child ingested some unidentified capsules.

He would be called to testify at the state Capitol -- over and over -- as Virginia's first registered marijuana lobbyist.

And he would be arrested for sneaking baby pot plants into the General Assembly in an attempt to convince lawmakers that felony charges were just too Draconian for what he described as an innocent weed.

Those days ended over a decade ago. The news clips have crinkled with age. So has he, although only slightly.

Last weekend, Roy B. Scherer, who lives "from time to time" in a condemned Oregon Hill row house, quietly turned 50 on Groundhog Day. "That's 112 in aardvark years," he joked.

There was a sign on his door: "Sorry, no party. The house is being sold. You could buy me a beer at The Village."

And there he was in the Grace Street restaurant, Richmond's last enclave for the hip counterculture, surrounded by a few 30- and 40-something friends who fondly recalled $25-an-ounce dope days while sipping brews and smoking cigarettes.

A friend, who preferred to remain anonymous, listened to the old tales about Scherer's impromptu anti-war, pro-dope speeches in Virginia Commonwealth University's Shafer Court and said:

"Roy has lived a scriptless life."

If any statement fairly summarizes Scherer's half-century, that would be it.

That and his Bucks cigarette cap. Stitched on the back are the words "Buck the system," which is what Scherer did until he dropped out of the lobbying game in about 1980.

The man who spent his youth trying to get into the space program is definitely out there in his own orbit.

"The normal people you just throw away," he said, quoting a friend. "It's the crazy people you have to pay attention to."

Scherer was 25 before he had enough hair for serious combing. Soon after that, he smoked his first joint.

The grandson of a preacher, he grew up in the Richmond area. His father, a railroad man, died of cancer when he was 8, so young Roy was sent to a series of military schools and graduated from the Miller School in Albemarle County in 1959.

"I wanted to get in the space program ever since grade school, before there was one," he said in precise, clipped tones more suited to a wealthy country club lounger than a 6-foot-4-inch rebel with no front teeth and 3 feet of hair.

With that end in mind, he shot for the Air Force Academy, barely missing. After a year at the University of Richmond, he joined the Air Force in the hopes it would lead him to the academy. It didn't.

After his tour, he wandered around the country during the mid-' 60s, selling magazines door-to-door and "sowing my wild oats."

Back in Richmond, he worked for a division of AT&T and then Virginia Folding Box Co. It was there he got his wild hair.

His crew cut had grown out an inch or so. "The boss said, `You've got to get a haircut. We don't allow no hippies working here.'

"I thought, `I'm not going to get a haircut.' It was many years before I did."

About that time, he was walking down the street and some people driving by asked where Grant's tomb was. Scherer told them to head north a couple of hundred miles, then ask a police officer.

But cruising down Grace Street he saw it: Grant's Tomb.

"It was Richmond's first head shop and second coffee house, where Lum's is now." (Head shops sold drug paraphernalia.)

At that point, "I don't think I had even heard the word `marijuana.' "

Curious, Scherer went inside Grant's Tomb and found his niche. "Poets, artists and weirdos. I really liked these people -- and I don't make friends that easily."

He heard about marijuana through them. As was his habit when discovering a new phenomenon, he went to several libraries and read everything he could find on the subject.

Later he would get some "grass" from one of his new friends.

"It was a Sunday morning. I had come back from church. Sandston Presbyterian Church. I rolled up two joints. Got a Coca-Cola. I smoked the first one, holding it in like I knew you were supposed to do." He coughed and sputtered, imitating his first experience.

"It didn't do anything . . . " So he smoked the second one. Still nothing.

He got on his motorcycle and rode to a diner for lunch, as he did every Sunday after church. "The sun was shining sooo bright. The birds were singing." He waved his hands like a musical conductor. "It got real intense."

Once at the diner, he ate two complete meals. "It was the best meal I ever had in my life.

"I tried it and I liked it. I couldn't figure out what the fuss was all about . . . I still don't."

"I was busted in Chicago in `69. I was severely beaten by three pigs. They don't deserve the term `police officers.' They dishonor that phrase."

The protest was a year after the riots outside the Democratic National Convention.

There was plenty of action, and he treated "several demonstrators, one cop and a couple of civilians" with the medical kit he had brought.

Scherer, the anti-war demonstrator, has a seemingly contradictory philosophy about fighting.

"When it comes to a fight, whether it's personal or national, try to avoid it. If you can't, fight like (expletive) and try to win. Then stop fighting."

At a willowy 160 pounds, Scherer doesn't look like the scrapping kind.

But it was he who disarmed a drunken, knife-wielding man who was attacking another guest at a 1977 wedding reception.

He not only got nicked for his troubles, but later the drunk found him in the Rainbow Inn and shot him in the lower chest, according to news reports at the time.

"I'm shot in the gut!" Scherer recalled, holding his stomach and reliving the experience. "I'm going to die young! Then it dawned on me -- no one was going to intervene as long as he was waving a gun around."

So he disarmed the gunman and then pinned him down (with help from other patrons) until police arrived. Then he rode his bicycle to the hospital.

Luckily, the .32-caliber bullet passed through his ribs and exited cleanly through his back.

Scherer said he was in church the next day.

Caught up in the hemp-scented countercultural revolution of the late `60s and early `70s, Scherer found himself in the office of Henry Howell, then the lieutenant governor of Virginia.

"Howling Henry . . . I was vastly impressed by the man," Scherer recalled.

"Here it was, a very busy time. (The 1972 General Assembly was in session.) I was a nobody -- just a college student. And he talked to me for 20 minutes. Then we went down to the governor's office. No notice."

He testified for lawmakers the first time, which resulted in a modified drug law. He was immediately struck by two things: the power of democracy and "We need more than one person working on this."

So Scherer formed Virginians for the Study of Marijuana Laws, a grass- roots lobbying group that brought him to the General Assembly again and again.

"I'm not sorry I did it," he said. "But I wish I could have done it better. We never had money. . . . If we did, we'd probably have grass legal today."

As it was, "we were able to encourage a number of good laws and discourage a raft of bad laws."

"I always liked Roy," recalled C. Hardaway Marks, then the head of the Courts of Justice Committee and now retired from the House of Delegates. ' ' I didn't follow his philosophy on marijuana, but he would level with the committee. He appeared before us many times."

Scherer's fame peaked on Feb. 18, 1977, when he sneaked a tiny pot plant into the General Assembly to make his point: "Does it seem fair that you can be sentenced to five years minimum for that little plant?" he asked lawmakers.

The next day Scherer was arrested for possession of marijuana, launching a series of court cases he was confident would undermine the constitutionality of Virginia's marijuana laws.

"Defense entered a library of marijuana-related books and documents -- 56 in all -- into evidence," a reporter wrote about Scherer's second hearing.

But alas, the huge case Scherer envisioned couldn't be built atop one spindly marijuana plant.

After one conviction and an appeal, Circuit Judge James B. Wilkinson derailed Scherer's freedom train when he acquitted him based on a "feeling" instead of law: He believed Scherer "didn't really want to violate the law" when he possessed the plant, news reports said.

Scherer's thunder dissipated like a summer storm. And so did his taste for the battle. Within a year, he would start his slow fade into the shadows.

"People would come up and say: `Yeah, man. I'm all in favor of what you're doing. But you should have done so-and-so.' But they did nothing to help.

"That really wrecked my morale."

His mission "waxed and waned -- until it just waned away."

Scherer, a bachelor, is still an advocate -- albeit a pretty quiet one -- of legalizing drugs, even though he's aware that the concept is more unpopular now than ever before.

He still lives his ideal, he says, but he has given up on trying to legalize the parts of it that are against the law.

Now he makes a living doing "anything to turn an honest buck." He smiled. "It doesn't have to be legal, as long as it's honest."

He does a little carpentry, plumbing and electrical repair, and enjoys computer programming, repair and design.

And "I enjoy smoking grass." He added that he smokes sporadically.

"Ask people why they don't smoke grass. `It's against the law' is way down the list. I'm a hard-liner. I'm in favor of legalizing all drugs -- as long as you're an adult.

"This country was built on the principle that you can go to hell in your own hand basket."

Dumb people get messed up on drugs and kill themselves, he said. "If you die, then the average intelligence of the world will go up."

As for those who hurt someone else, Scherer said the courts should have no mercy on them.

He doesn't believe in people driving or working when impaired by alcohol or drugs. But he firmly believes that outlawing drugs has only encouraged gang warfare, murder, prostitution, exorbitantly high prices and a black market that siphons off billions each year from the economy.

Laws haven't worked with drugs, he said.

But that's not his battle any more. That's long gone. He's 50 now, and still living much as he did in the `60s and `70s.

"One thing you can be sure of . . . Times change. Sometimes we change with them."