The NJWEEDMAN Saga Part 1: The Making of an Activist

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Bob Beach. Beach is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Albany, SUNY. 

On January 27, a 20-year old Spencer Alan Boston walked into a Wilson County, Tennessee General Sessions court, to discuss sentencing on a simple marijuana possession charge. Tennessee law penalizes possession of less than a half-ounce of marijuana as a misdemeanor, subject to as much as a year sentence. But instead of discussing his case, Boston started to make an argument in favor of legalizing marijuana in the state as he reached into his pocket, pulled out a joint, and lit it up.

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Spencer Alan Boston lights it up

He was arrested (while onlookers reportedly erupted into laughter) and received ten days in jail for contempt of court and is facing new charges. A Gofundme page was created to raise $10,000 to hire attorneys in his defense (they’ve raised $7,375 to date). In an interview he argued that his stunt was a way to get people to talk about legalization.

As I watched the story unfold, I remembered some research I had found among the NORML papers at University of Massachusetts Amherst: a small collection of correspondence and some newspaper clippings from the early 2000s on Robert Ed Forchion, better known as NJWeedman. A little investigation reveals the fascinating story of Forchion who, following a 1997 arrest for possession and intent to distribute, used public smoking protests and other means to expose the hypocrisy in the War on Drugs, the weaknesses in legalization activism, and most importantly, to advocate in his own defense. His latest activity included selling marijuana in front of the State Building in New Jersey in September 2018. 

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Robert Ed Forchion, performative cannabis protest expert, in September 2018

Forchion was born and raised in Camden, New Jersey. He started smoking marijuana at fifteen in the late seventies and was, according to his website, “immediately impressed by its medical healing powers, in regard to his asthma.” He rejected claims about its harms as “propaganda and Christian superstitions.” He continued to use marijuana through high school and, supposedly, during eigh years of military service in various branches, receiving honorable or medical discharges (due to asthma) in all cases.

At some time after (or possibly during) his time in the military, he began to “smuggle” marijuana, particularly in 1994, when he worked as a cross-country trucker and owner of his own company, Forchion Trucking. His website contains claims (which have also been entered into court records in various cases) that “he proudly admits he was a marijuana smuggler, driving hundreds of pounds of cannabis from Arizona border towns to east coast cities such as Cleveland, Ohio, Philadelphia, New York City and Camden, New Jersey.”

But this wasn’t simply an economic move. He has made the dubious claim that he’s never profited from his activities [1], but there is some (hard do verify) evidence that his motives went beyond economics. Perhaps in response to perceived “Christian superstitions” around cannabis, he became a practicing Rastafarian in 1995. He’s stated on numerous occasions that his goals remain to provide “medical and spiritual cannabis” to people who need it or would benefit from it. And while his business was likely more lucrative than he claims, it could have been more so. Still, due to his refusal during to transport anything other than cannabis, he acquired his nickname, NJWeedman

His legal troubles began in 1997. The status of his trucking business is unclear here, but on November 24 of that year, he was arrested and later charged with possession and conspiracy to distribute 45 pounds of marijuana from Arizona to a factory at the Bellmawr Industrial Park (just south of Camden, NJ) via FedEx. Under the provisions of an updated (in August 1997) New Jersey “Drug Kingpin Law,” he would face 20 years in prison and $300,000 in fines.

To this point, the story reads like a somewhat typical tale in the Nineties War on Drugs. But this story is anything but. Ed Forchion took his defense into his own hands, launching a political career that frequently saw him running for multiple political offices in a single election season, all for the express purpose of targeting the War on Drugs in the construction of a sophisticated defense strategy that centered on the concept of Jury Nullification.

For those unfamiliar, jury nullification is a controversial defense strategy in which defendants attempt to task the jury, not with determining the facts of the case, but to challenge the legitimacy of a law. The problem is, prosecutors and even many defense attorneys shy away from this strategy, viewing it as beyond the charge of a jury in a criminal trial in which their charge was to determine the facts of the case to establish a defendant’s guilt in violating an established law beyond a reasonable doubt.

Forchion would later argue that his entire life’s passion for pro-pot activism was the result of the upheaval brought about by his 1997 arrest. With his options clearly limited, he went on an all-out offensive. In 1998, he established the Legalize Marijuana Party, and ran for Camden county Board of Freeholders, as well as a seat in the United States House of Representatives.

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A plaque at Old Bailey’s in London, where William Penn was acquitted via jury nullification (By Paul Clarke – Wikipedia)

Forchion’s candidacy barely registered on election day, but that was not the point. The next year, in the midst of a second run at the board of Freeholders, and this time a run at the New Jersey state legislature (NJ 8th), an October 1999 article in the Philadelphia Inquirer explained that Forchion was “after Jurors, Not Voters.” [2] Forchion himself wrote an Op-Ed in the paper making perhaps his first public case for jury nullification, comparing his case to a 1670 court case where an English jury refused to convict William Penn of unlawful assembly. [3] Ten years, later, Penn would establish Pennsylvania.

Forchion’s trafficking trial began in September 2000, and Forchion turned up the pressure and succeeded in getting widespread media attention on March 17, 2000, for lighting a joint in the New Jersey’s State Legislative Chambers in Trenton, where two religious rights bills failed to be considered. [4] He followed up during the Republican National Convention in August with another public smoke-out, this time in front of the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. [5]

But he hit his first roadblock in September, when the judge in the case barred Forchion from arguing for jury nullification during his trial. According to Aamer Madhani of the Philadelphia Inquirer, prosecutors routinely recognized the “right” of juries to nullify laws, but argued that the right “should not be advertised” to juries. [6] Rejecting a deal from Camden County Prosecutor John Wynne,and defying the judge’s ruling by introducing jury nullification during his September 20th opening statement, Forchion began his own defense with public defender Jaime Kaigh as his advisor. 

To the surprise of everyone (including the judge and Forchion), prosecutors did not object. John Wynne explained his lack of objection on the grounds that he thought the approach hurt Forchion more than it helped him. [7] As it turns out, Wynne was right, but not entirely. After only a day in court, a day that saw Forchion’s brother testify against him, Forchion pled guilty to conspiracy, admitting to arranging the deal. In exchange, he would receive a lighter sentence, and be eligible for early release onto Intensive Supervisory Probation (ISP). He would also get a chance to talk to the jury. 

Surprisingly, several jury members admitted their willingness to nullify the law, but not in this case considering the amount in question. One female juror was quoted as saying “If you want to take it, it’s your body. You should have just kept it to yourself.” [8] Speaking to the jury in this case seems to have vindicated Forchion’s entire strategy, and both his long and short term trajectory seems to bear this out.

First, he would attempt to withdraw the plea in mid-October. He continues to allege that his advisor Jaime Kaigh and the county prosecutors negotiated his plea deal without his permission or awareness and then pressured him into taking the deal, “in a moment of extreme anxiety and temporary loss of my faith.” [9] His attempt was denied. A month later, and less than two weeks prior to his sentencing, he fled to Canada to seek political asylum at the Cuban embassy in Ottawa. [10] He would relent and appear for his sentencing in which he was given 10 years with the possibility of early release onto ISP, which he did in April 2002, after serving 15 months at Riverfront State Prison.

While in prison, Forchion met Dr. Steven Fenichel, after developing “a golf ball-sized growth” on his knees, an acceleration of a chronic joint pain that he claimed to have been managing with marijuana since the mid-late 1990s. Interventions pursued by Fenichel led to a diagnosis of Giant Cell Tumors (GCT) in his shoulders and knees, and treatments that started in August 2001. GCTs are mostly benign, but if left untreated they can turn cancerous with a 10% mortality rate. According to NORML records, Fenichel also seems to have put Forchion in contact with California attorney Clay Conrad. [11]

Conrad, author of a 2013 book, Jury Nullification: The Evolution of a Doctrine, worked on connecting Forchion to a New Jersey attorney who could help him with an appeal of his sentence, and he publicized his case with the Fully Informed Jury Association, writing an article for their newsletter, FIJActivist. [12] Eventually, in April 2004 he would appeal his conviction [13], but despite the intervention of Fenichel and Conrad, Forchion’s case seems to have proceeded as intended. This admittedly anecdotal inability of activist organizations (particularly white activist organizations) to promote criminal justice would take on an interesting context in Forchion’s case.

You can’t help but see some of the consequences of these and related decisions on what’s happening in the United States recently. While Forchion would not avoid cooperation with activist groups, as we’ll see in the next installment of this saga, Forchion (as he did in his defense in a Camden County Courthouse) would take his activism into his own hands. And while we’ll see that obstacles remain, Forchion’s successes in the years since his 1997 arrest and 2000 conviction for being a Drug Kingpin have been largely of his own making.

NOTES (All cited clippings and letters from the NORML Papers at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst)

[1] Shannon O’Boye, “Candidate is After Jurors, Not Voters,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 25 October 1999.

[2] ibid.

[3] Ed Forchion, “Is Marijuana Law in U.S. Wrong? Let a Jury Decide,” Philadelphia Enquirer, 12 July 1999.

[4] Jeff Edelstein, “Joint Legislative Session: Activist Lights Up in Assembly,” The Trentonian, 17 March 2000.

[5] Linn Washington Jr., “Reefer Madness: Cops watch as political candidate fires up a big doobie,” Philadelphia Weekly, 9 August 2000.

[6] Aamer Madhani, “Marijuana Maverick begins defense at trial,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, 20 September 2000.

[7] ibid.

[8] Renee Winkler, “Marijuana advocate changes mind, takes deal on drug counts” Courier-Post, 21 September 2000. 

[9] Mike Mathis, “’Weedman’ wants to withdraw guilty plea,” Burlington County Times, 19 October 2000.

[10] Tom Fernandez, “Up in Smoke: Marijuana advocate wants chance to argue case,” The Trentonian, 27 November 2000.

[11] For correspondence between Fenichel, Conrad, and Forchion, see (Box 26, Folder 12) National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (U.S.) Records, MS 757. Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries.

[12] Clay Conrad, “William Penn’s Revenge Part II: Philadelphia Federal Defenders Organization Joins State Defenders in Urging Jury Nullification Defenses” unpublished manuscript prepared for FIJActivist, Box 26, Folder 12) National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (U.S.) Records, MS 757. Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries.

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