A German prison was the last place Alex Rogers expected to find himself shortly after marrying his Slovenian bride.
Three weeks earlier, on Dec. 19, 2005, the Ashland resident was in Medford, where he had married Tina Rogers. Gathered around him at the family home were his parents, Hank and Charlotte Rogers, and his sister, Paige, who was attending Princeton University. Retired Judge Ray White performed the ceremony.
The couple returned to Europe and landed on Jan. 13, 2006, in Salzburg, Austria, where authorities arrested Rogers on an international warrant related to the sale of 50 pounds of marijuana a couple of years earlier. It was a Friday the 13th.
“I was a horrible drug dealer,” said Rogers, 44, who at the time had dreadlocks and was known as rapper “Jah Bhang.”
Fast-forward 10 years, and Rogers has graduated magna cum laude from Southern Oregon University with a political science degree. He is chief executive officer of Ashland Alternative Health, with offices in Ashland and Eugene, which helps patients get medical marijuana cards, and he leads business conferences that draw marijuana entrepreneurs from around the world. He said his businesses gross about $2 million a year.
The outlook was much darker a decade ago. While Rogers recalls that on his first night in the Salzburg jail, he could see the church from the “Sound of Music,” shortly after he was sent to Stadelheim, a notorious European prison that briefly housed Adolf Hitler before his rise to power and was the site of prisoner executions by guillotine during World War II.
“It is probably one of the most sinister places,” said Rogers. Criminals from Russia, Eastern Europe and Turkey were his cellmates, including a psychopathic murderer. “Everybody’s got a shank,” he remembered. “Everybody’s in a gang.”
His martial arts training gave him some confidence, but he was fearful. He finally ended up spending almost six months in Bad Reichenhall, a less-malevolent prison, but he was in lockdown 23 hours a day.
“My sister went to Princeton — I went to prison,” he joked. During his time behind bars, he said, he actually made friends with many of the inmates.
“But six months seemed liked forever,” he said.
After he got out, he vowed never to sell marijuana again, though he does smoke it.
Rogers also promotes various cannabis business conferences, including in Europe. On Nov. 21, he expects 600 attendees for a conference at the Ashland Hills Hotel and Suites on the new state rules and regulations for cannabis businesses.
As much as he regrets his time behind bars, Rogers said it was a turning point in his life as a European vagabond, pot grower in Switzerland and rapper. Rogers eventually traded in his dreadlocks for a suit and tie and now looks more like an accountant than a marijuana activist.
Rogers says he's comfortable talking about his criminal past because of changing pot laws. Oregon also allows residents to expunge previous marijuana convictions.
He still hasn’t completely given up his counterculture roots, occasionally breaking out into rap at his office or at conferences.
His wife, Tina, now 33, said she rarely talks about her husband’s time in prison.
“It sure was shocking to say the least,” she said. “It was definitely the hardest thing I’ve been through.”
Tina doesn’t like smoking marijuana, preferring to sip a glass of wine. With a degree in economics, she manages the bookkeeping for their businesses and takes care of their 4-year-old daughter.
Tina said she didn’t want a big wedding and didn’t even really care about having a honeymoon.
“Our life has been a honeymoon,” she said. “He’s the love of my life.”
She remembers being able to see her husband only once a month in prison and being worried about his recurring stomach issues, which he says are helped by marijuana and a healthful diet.
Looking back, she said it was an ordeal but in no way undermined their marriage.
“It made us stronger,” she said.
Alex’s father, Hank Rogers, who is 76 and now lives in Ashland, said he knew his son liked marijuana even in high school but preferred him smoking pot to drinking alcohol.
“I didn’t like that he was selling it,” Hank said. “I knew it would get him in trouble soon enough.”
His son’s arrest started a six-month odyssey of lawyers and trips to Europe. After about $20,000 in expenses, including plane trips, Hank, a retired manager who taught Japanese manufacturing techniques, returned home with his son and new daughter-in-law.
He welcomed the changes the stint in prison had brought about in Alex, who cut off the dreadlocks and gave up the life of living on the edge.
“He is a survivor, I can tell you that much,” Hank said.
Anthony Johnson, the chief petitioner for Measure 91, which legalized recreational marijuana in Oregon, helped Rogers get his start in the politics of marijuana. He hired him to help organize cannabis-related events and to help earlier efforts to legalize marijuana. Early on in their relationship, Rogers told Johnson about his prison stint.
“That scared him straight,” Johnson said. “Now he prefers to follow the letter of the law.”
Johnson and Rogers don’t always see eye to eye on the amount of regulation Oregon has placed on marijuana.
“We’re allies politically, but I have more of an appetite for rules and regulations,” Johnson said.
State Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, who also pushed hard for marijuana legalization, describes Rogers as a fierce advocate for medical marijuana patients as well as a key statewide player in the development of the marijuana industry.
“At times his passion leads him to ‘ready, fire, aim,’ as it were, to push forward without fully considering the impacts,” Buckley said. “But he clearly has a vision as to what a great marijuana industry for Oregon would be.”
Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @reporterdm.