The NJWEEDMAN Saga Part 2: The bittersweet triumphs of Ed Forchion, Activist

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

In my last post, I covered the 1997 arrest and subsequent conviction and imprisonment of Robert Ed Forchion, also known as NJWeedman. As I write, we remain in the midst of sustained nationwide protests and an emerging public discussion about policing in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. Watching a police officer callously assault and eventually kill a man while being filmed has led to a sea change (though still severely limited) in public acknowledgement and critique of poor police behavior. But watching the subsequent coverage of the police response to this critique (which has been to double down on their brutality) keeps bringing me back to Ed Forchion, whose post-release story (though not as tragic as George Floyd’s) highlights the depths of the systemic problems of modern policing.

In 1997, Ed Forchion committed a crime, and he paid his debt to society. But he left Riverfront State Prison in April 2002 still a victim of the War on Drugs. He was released into the Intensive Supervision Program (ISP), an enhanced parole program in New Jersey that required electronic monitoring, surprise drug tests, and other significant restrictions. Among them was a prohibition his public advocacy of the use of illegal drugs.

But he had spent a lot of time in the prison library at Riverfront, working on his various appeals and an autobiography that he would publish in 2010. Having some political experience running campaigns for various offices, largely to raise awareness among potential jurors about jury nullification, he decided to continue to advocate for the reform of New Jersey’s drug laws, distributing fliers and producing several videos. Officers interpreted these public statements as violations of his ISP probation and he was first placed under house arrest, and later taken into custody. It wasn’t until January 2003, after a federal judge ruled his violation was unconstitutional, that he was assured his release. Within a week, all of his violations were cleared and he completed the program without incident.

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Forchion’s 2010 Autobiography, available on Amazon.

He would re-emerge in December 2003, kicking off his next political campaign (for New Jersey’s 3rd District in the House of Representatives) with another public smoke-out in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia. [1] This time he was working with the self-described “renegade car salesman” and fellow Marijuana Party member Pat Duff. The “public prayer service” would continue being held on the third Saturday of each month until July 2004. On his first attempt, he was issued a $150 summons for illegal possession, and by November 2004, he was sentenced to a year of probation. [2] The next year he would run for Governor of New Jersey.

But his enthusiasm for living in New Jersey waned. A felony conviction and a fifteen-month incarceration made him a marked man. He couldn’t find a decent job, and couldn’t afford adequate treatment (beyond smoking cannabis, illegal in New Jersey) for his Giant Cell Tumors (GCTs), that were diagnosed while in prison. A year before his arrest, California voters affirmed the right of patients to access cannabis for treatment, but the rapid expansion of medicinal treatment was a long way (geographically, and temporally) to New Jersey. So in 2007, Forchion left his home state (in exile, as per an affidavit from 2011 to that effect) and moved to Los Angeles.

In California, he became a medical marijuana patient, and in May 2009 he opened Liberty Bell Temple II on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles. Due to his felony record, he was ineligible to operate a dispensary, so the Temple was established as a non-profit religious organization “that provides medical/spiritual marijuana” for the cannabis-consuming community of Los Angeles. The community responded, giving Forchion both wanted and unwanted attention. On one hand, he became a minor celebrity in L.A., hosting marijuana parties and appearing in several documentaries, TV shows, and music videos. He also became a target for police surveillance and occasional raids, culminating in a major raid in December of 2011 that effectively ended Forchion’s California exile.

But it was nothing worse than home. On a trip to visit family in the midst of his California troubles on April 1, 2010, he was pulled over in Mount Holly, New Jersey. The officer smelled marijuana in his car, found a glass pipe under one of his seats, and a pound of “medical” (obtained legally in California) marijuana in his trunk. He was once again arrested for possession with intent to distribute. 

Forchion, despite his prior failure to apply jury nullification, doubled-down on the strategy in this case, declaring another run for US Congress. The state of New Jersey had, in January 2010, passed the Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act and, while Forchion was unable to use the law to get the charges dropped completely, he used the changing attitudes in New Jersey as the basis of his jury nullification defense. Remarkably, while he was found guilty of simple possession, the jury was hung on his distribution charge. At the retrial, his nullification strategy worked and he was acquitted in October 2012.

In September 2013, he began a 270-day staggered sentence, allowing him to leave jail in ten-day intervals for medical treatment on his GCT. In January 2014, a Burlington County Judge reconsidered the terms of his sentence and he was released from jail there. The evolving environment for pot in New Jersey encouraged him to stay, and he opened NJWeedman’s Joint, a restaurant, in the state capitol of Trenton (defiantly right across from City Hall). Next door was The Liberty Bell Temple III. The temple was modelled after its predecessor in Los Angeles and would become a “sanctuary” for medicinal and spiritual use of cannabis.

And like its predecessor in Los Angeles, the Temple gained a great deal of attention from police and the press. The Wall St. Journal covered the opening of NJWeedman’s Joint, Vice News ran a short story on Forchion’s Temple, and both Dope Magazine and Leafly ran stories that linked Forchion’s long-time activism to the legalization movement, the former piece in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement. For his part, Forchion continued his activism, with a smoke-out protest at Trenton City Hall in November 2015 to protest the failure of a city council resolution that would support full legalization in New Jersey. And in 2016, he Filed Writ of Certiorari to the US Supreme Court challenging New Jersey on ten separate questions related to medical and religious uses of marijuana, and the racial discrimination present in drug enforcement. He also ran for Congress again, in 2016, this time New Jersey’s 12th District in the House.

There is some indication that for the first time (despite continuing legal troubles following a raid on the Liberty Bell Temple III in April 2016), Forchion focused his attention on running his campaign. Still not expecting to win races, but certainly expecting to shape the conversation, he spelled out his views on everything from NAFTA, housing, wages, gun control, and the war on drugs previewed on NJSpotlight, a forum that classified Forchion as an “experienced” candidate. 

But his focus remained on jury nullification. The April 2016 raid was the culmination of a year of routine police harassment (as classified by Forchion), and a two-month police investigation into Forchion’s operations at the Liberty Bell Temple, which included the use of at least one police informant. The police seized a lot of material (including audiovisual equipment that had been set up to film a reality show, and hard drives containing Forchion’s writings) and crushed his iconic Weedmobile. An Indiegogo project was established to raise money for the purchase of a new Weedmobile, but it only raised $305 of its $7,500 goal. The same day, NJWeedman’s Joint was shut down for health code violations. He was indicted on 11 charges. Most of them would be later dismissed, including several for being “improperly dispensed.” 

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NJWeedman’s infamous “Weedmobile” confiscated and destroyed by police April 2015.

What followed the raid were a series of actions that Forchion fully admits were provocative, including his decision to publicly out the police informant that Trenton police used to justify the April raid on social media. This led to Forchion’s March 2017 arrest (broadcast on Facebook Live) on two charges of witness tampering. This time, he was retained on pre-trial detention. While the judge argued that Forchion posed a threat to the witness and his family, Forchion argues that the decision was politically motivated. This accusation was echoed by the Fully Informed Jury Association as “a new depth [of] depravity and maliciousness in [the state of New Jersey’s] ongoing vendetta against him.” 

He began a hunger strike from June 12 to June 27 to protest his pre-trial detention. In yet another odd incidence in this case, it was Duane Chapman, in town speaking out against New Jersey bail reform (and voicing support for Forchion’s case during a public speaking event), who urged Forchion to end the hunger strike, citing his success at publicizing his plight and getting a new bail hearing.

The bail hearing did not secure his pretrial release, but the hunger strike would reach potential jurors in his witness tampering case. Starting in October 2017, Forchion argued jury nullification during his opening statement in his own defense. He would be found non-guilty of the 2nd degree charge, but the jury was hung on the 3rd degree charge. Forchion would remain in jail awaiting his retrial, which didn’t end until May 2018, where a jury found him not guilty

Despite his legal vindication, Ed Forchion spent 447 days in jail. He served 480 days after his first conviction in 2000. He’s had plenty of additional penalties for being NJWeedman.com. His crimes are directly and indirectly connected to his involvement with a recreational/medicinal/spiritual substance that is increasingly being recognized as not merely a legitimate retail product, but also an increasingly important source of public revenue.

The trajectory if Ed Forchion is remarkable for its ironies, and its tragic coincidences. Fochion’s first arrest in 1997 took place as attitudes toward marijuana began what has become a dramatic shift toward acceptance. In the years since, Forchion’s position, both on the issue and within the industry, seems to vindicate all of his activism. But since he’s got a felony on his record, he can’t run a dispensary. In an interview with Merry Jane he sees the push toward legalization that he championed has left him behind. He continues to advocate for a social justice approach to legalization, and it’s possible that a seemingly impending seismic shift in discussions about racial justice brought about by recent events could very well vindicate his approach.

At the same time, the methods of enforcement shown in this brief review of Ed Forchion’s travails demonstrate just how deeply seeded these poor relationships between police and communities have gotten. History shows we’re just as likely to experience retrenchment of those attitudes. Forchion has never tried to deny his activities or their illegality, and his tenacious pursuit of jury nullification and his frequent public statements bear this out. But the story of NJWeedman isn’t about a criminal evading justice. The story of NJWeedman is about a War on Drugs that has evolved in practice into targeted and routine harassment with little regard for the civil liberties of its victims. 

Bernie Sanders has recently said that the first step in reforming the police is legalizing marijuana. Ed Forchion has been saying that for more than two decades. 

NOTES

[1] Sam Wood, “Marijuana Activist Uses Act of Defiance to Launch Campaign.” Philadelphia Inquirer, 24 December 2003.

[2] Cory Frolik, “Up in Smoke.” The City Paper, 18 November 2004.

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