The Battle of Trenton: State vs. NJWeedman
(This article orignally appeared on HeadyNJ.com where I serve as Editor:
By DAN ULLOA
As cannabis is becoming legal across the country, minorities are being excluded from the upper echelons of the industry and still getting arrested for possession and distribution. But one man is refusing to abide by the state’s regulations and is daring authorities to arrest him. Ed “NJWeedman” Forchion (pronounced “for-shown”) has become an especially controversial figure in Trenton, NJ amidst the delayed passage of adult-use cannabis reform.
Forchion has been selling cannabis for years in New Jersey and feels both the current federal prohibition and the proposed New Jersey bill that failed earlier this year are unjust. He believes the bill was discriminatory because it excluded felons such as himself from even applying for a license to sell legally. This is outrageous considering his leadership in the legalization movement as well his canna-business experience not only in New Jersey but in California.
Forchion is an adherent of the view espoused by Michelle Alexander in the New Jim Crow where she argued that America’s criminal justice system which denies individuals their right to vote and benefits due to their status as felons (who are predominantly African American and Hispanic) which makes them second class citizens in the United States the way Jim Crow laws did. Especially in her acknowledgment that as cannabis becomes legal, white men will get rich as those who were previously imprisoned for selling cannabis will be excluded and continued to be jailed.
According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), cannabis use is roughly equal among Blacks and Whites, but African Americans are 3.73 times as likely to be arrested for possession, and eight times more likely to be charged with possession with intent to distribute.
In many states that passed adult-use cannabis reform, there has been a great delay in addressing the expungement of the records of those most harmed by the failed War on Drugs. Colorado was the first state to legalize in 2012 and passed a law in 2017 that allows those with misdemeanor use or possession convictions “to ask to seal, but not erase, criminal records if it is not currently a crime”. In California, when legalization passed in 2016, expungement was allowed, but no mechanism was outlined. Thus, cities and counties took a piecemeal approach.
Many places are only erasing the records of those with simple possession charges and not traffickers. New Jersey is seeking to set up a similar mechanism. In Forchion’s view, Senator Nick Scutari (D-Union) wrote a bill where already wealthy individuals would profit the most. The fact that companies seeking to sell cannabis needed to have about $2 million in the bank in the last round of the medical marijuana license competition justify Forchion’s view.
“I built grow rooms and a dispensary in L.A. for far less,” he added. Forchion became fed up with the way business was being done.
“There are six dispensaries in NJ. Those six are rich white corporations – Caucasian Cannabis Corporations (CCCs). NJ’s pending legalization bill would have done same thing. It would then be a couple 100 white guys selling weed, while we’d be expected to stop selling weed, and patronize the CCCs or risk imprisonment” said Forchion. Thus, he invented the hashtag #sellingweedlikeimwhite to protest, as he sells weed demanding to be included in this age of cannabis legalization.
In November 2018, he went to the New Jersey Statehouse and announced to the Assembly that he “will be selling weed like I’m white”. Furthermore, in March 2019, he sent letters to New Jersey’s Attorney General Gurbir Grewal and Craig Carpenito, the U.S. Attorney for New Jersey, that he “was selling weed like he’s white” which he posted on his website and mailed to numerous media outlets. He argued that the medical marijuana dispensaries set up in New Jersey are just as much in defiance of the federal prohibition as he is, but because their owners are white, they are being protected by New Jersey’s medical marijuana law, the Compassionate Use of Medical Marijuana Act (CUMA) while he is not.
His most public protest was in Oct 2018 when he staged a protest that was featured in Vice where he dressed in a prisoner’s orange jumpsuit that said “political prisoner 420” and went outside New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy’s office and was openly selling small amounts of cannabis and plants. (It was particularly ironic he was selling plants since even the legislators who support passing adult-use reform are against “home grow”.) State police did not arrest him as he tried to light a joint, but merely told him to go to the area where the permit for a protest was granted.
“I’ve been selling weed like a white guy since,” he said.
Thus, for over a year, New Jersey hasn’t arrested him but rather ignored him.
Since his last acquittal in May 2018, he defiantly told Mercer County assistant prosecutor Stephanie Katz he’s “selling weed like the white guys” and dared her to prosecute him. Instead, he had pending charges dismissed. He has been encouraging others to join him. “There should be more people like me. If there’s a 1,000 like me, then they can’t ignore it,” he said. “As you can see it’s easy to ignore a one-man gang like me, for over a year now the state has looked the other way as I sell weed like the six CCC owners in this state. I am the only black-owned dispensary in New Jersey, limited only by my illegality in state law. I should be as protected from the feds as the six white guys are; this is what I’m seeking from a jury of my peers, a public trial, but I’m being thwarted because Mercer County Prosecutor Stephanie Katz is ignoring me.”
Forchion has been arrested numerous times. In 2000, when he was arrested for a series of weed distribution charges, he took a plea but scared the prosecutor. He was initially facing 30 years, but received 10 years, and only served seventeen months.
When arrested, he found the concept of jury nullification whereby the 12 members of a jury can decide an individual is not guilty if they believe the law is unjust. He is a proud exponent of this tactic which has served him well. Forchion points to the state Constitution which says that “the truth may be given in evidence to the jury; and if it shall appear to the jury that the matter charged as libelous is true, and was published with good motives and for justifiable ends, the party shall be acquitted; and the jury shall have the right to determine the law and the fact.”
He thus seeks to “put the law on trial with a jury of my peers,” Forchion said, “The people are the final arbitrators of the laws passed by politicians.”
After winning more than one trial with jury nullification, Forchion is especially bold in his espousal and the fact that authorities have been unable to convict him. In fact, he looks forward to going to court again “They also know I’m the unconvictable Robin Hood of Reefer,” Forchion said. “I don’t think the state can get 12 (#NJcantget12).”
“That would be part of my opening statement: ‘I’m being prosecuted for selling weed while not white and putting the law on trial’,” he added. “My public message to the authorities is: You can’t convict! Go ahead! Arrest me! Let me be the martyr! I’m not taking a plea.”
In addition to his #SELLWEEDLIKEIMWHITE protest, Forchion is running for State Assembly in New Jersey’s 15th Legislative District in this year’s Assembly election on the Legalize Marijuana Party ticket. Towards that end, he has been passing out flyers and selling bags of weed to anyone interested while campaigning.
Leading Local Businessman
While he might seem like a radical, Forchion often espouses a simple belief in a free market system.
He currently runs a café called NJWeedman’s Joint which adjoins his Liberty Bell Temple III which, due to its exemption as a religious organization, allows members who pay a small fee to smoke there without fear of repercussion. The café and temple are across the street from Trenton City Hall.
Previously Forchion was running a medical marijuana business known as Liberty Bell Temple II in Los Angeles before the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) shut it down in 2012 because cannabis was still federally illegal. “Out of 800, they went after me,” Forchion said. He attributes this to his loud criticism of national marijuana laws.
Afterward, he came back to New Jersey where he began selling in the underground market which he had been doing prior to going to California.
NJWeedan likens himself to General Douglas MacArthur in the Pacific theater in World War II.
“He was chased off by the Japanese, but he vowed to come back and fight. And he did, the American army, marines recaptured the Philippines. I feel like same way. I left Jersey in 2007. I hauled ass for a few years and in ‘13 came back to fight for all of us, for inclusion and I think I’m going to win,” Forchion said. “The state will either have to deal with me or ignore me, but I’m not going away.”