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As N.J. edges toward legalizing marijuana, a key character in the saga sits in jail

Jan Hefler, Staff Writer

Updated: Sunday, December 10, 2017, 8:11 AM

Ed “NJ Weedman” Forchion outside his Trenton, N.J., restaurant on Jan. 18, 2016. A drug bust at the restaurant has thrown the longtime marijuana legalization activist in jail.

Ed Forchion, the most recognizable face of the marijuana legalization movement in New Jersey, views the state’s changing legal landscape and sees irony in it.

At a Statehouse event in Trenton, N.J., Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017, advocates press the incoming Murphy administration to permit home cultivation of medical marijuana. From left: Cindy Ruggiero, Jim Miller holding sign) and Robert Ruggiero. Jose Moreno / Staff Photographer
New Jersey State Sen. Nicholas P. Scutari looks at a case of Medical marijuana for sale in Denver, Colorado, Oct. 18, 2016. Scutari was among N.J. legislators who traveled there to see how the legalized marijuana sale program works there. ERIC BELLAMY / For the Inquirer
Ed Forchion with his restaurant partner and girlfriend, Debi Madaio in 2017. Courtesy Debi Madaio
Photo Gallery: As N.J. edges toward legalizing marijuana, a key character in the saga sits in jail

Lawmakers are putting finishing touches on a legalization measure. Gov.-elect Phil Murphy has said he would sign it. Analysts see a sales tax bonanza. And on Thursday, patients enrolled in the state’s eight-year-old medical marijuana program went to the Statehouse to demand the right to grow their own cannabis.

At a Statehouse event in Trenton, N.J., Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017, advocates press the incoming Murphy administration to permit home cultivation of medical marijuana. From left: Cindy Ruggiero, Jim Miller holding sign) and Robert Ruggiero.

And here is Forchion, self-styled “NJ Weedman” and provocative champion of legalization for 20 years, in jail. He has been there since March on witness-tampering charges from a marijuana bust last year.

It was another arrest, on Nov. 23, 1997, that started him on his seemingly quixotic campaign. “I was so angry because I was arrested for weeeeed,” he said from the Mercer County Correctional Facility recently, drawing out the word. Forchion said he spent four days in a Bellmawr police station cell, and came out “determined to change the laws.”

Forchion, now 53 and a twice-divorced grandfather, smoked marijuana cigarettes during Statehouse protests. He mailed lumpy packages of joints to lawmakers, prosecutors, and the governor. He accosted Gov. Christie. “When are you going to stop arresting people for marijuana?” he asked, drawing the governor into a cordial exchange. Christie suggested that Forchion’s problem was with federal laws, not state.

Back then, politicians mocked his antics.

Now, lawmakers are hoping to bring legalization to the Garden State next year. Only eight other states have done so, though more than 10 others are weighing it.

Forchion’s “acts of civil disobedience … kept marijuana in the news a long time,” says State Sen. Nick Scutari, sponsor of the leading legalization bill. “Attitudes are slowly changing, and … people are starting to realize we have a failed war on drugs, and he’s not doing harm to anyone by smoking marijuana.”

New Jersey State Sen. Nicholas P. Scutari looks at a case of Medical marijuana for sale in Denver, Colorado, Oct. 18, 2016. Scutari was among N.J. legislators who traveled there to see how the legalized marijuana sale program works there.

Forchion’s brushes with the law also have made him into a jailhouse lawyer of sorts. In 2012, he persuaded a Burlington County jury to acquit him of charges of possessing a pound of pot after he portrayed himself as a “proud, peaceful pothead” who didn’t deserve jail time.

Public opinion also has swung his way. Surveys this year show most Americans support full legalization. Majorities opposed it just a few years ago.

Forchion is not celebrating. He sits, feeling forgotten, in a cell a few miles from the Statehouse.

Ed Forchion with his restaurant partner and girlfriend, Debi Madaio in 2017.

Charges of selling marijuana last year at his Trenton restaurant, NJ Weedman’s Joint, could disappear if the marijuana bill is approved, Forchion says. But looking beyond that, he sees flaws in the proposal.

“Legalization is coming, but the people who are the victims of the unjust laws are being shut out. I’ve been the biggest advocate, and I can’t get into this multi-billion industry that’s coming because of laws that say if you are a felon, you can’t be part of it,” he said in a nearly two-hour phone conversation from jail.

The bill would preclude those convicted of serious drug offenses from obtaining licenses. Lawmakers have said the industry will be strictly regulated.

Forchion has a record of drug charges, including serious ones of selling marijuana. He also faces a charge of witness tampering for allegedly attempting to “out” and intimidate an informant who worked with police before they raided his restaurant.

“Because I’m a loudmouth advocate of marijuana, I’ve created a lot of enemies,” he said. Last month a jury acquitted him of one of two counts of tampering, but was hung on the second. Prosecutors said they will retry him on that charge.

Forchion operated a marijuana dispensary in Los Angeles for two years before it was raided by federal agents who suspected violations. Having grown up in Sicklerville, Camden County, he moved back home after the 2011 raid to be closer to family and hoped to open a dispensary in New Jersey.

Now he predicts “Caucasian cannabis corporations” will have the edge under the legalization bill, while African Americans like himself and small shop owners will be shut out of the likely restrictive licensing process.

Blacks are arrested three times as often as whites and Hispanics for marijuana possession in New Jersey, according to a recent ACLU study. Their records could prevent them from being approved to open dispensaries for recreational marijuana, he said.

The bill contains a provision calling for consideration for minority and female-owned businesses in approving licenses. A spokesperson for Scutari said the issue of racial disparity is still being discussed.

Scutari said he understands Forchion’s concern about corporations taking over the cannabis industry. “That would be a mistake to allow that to happen,” he said. He plans to improve the bill, establishing “set-asides for small business owners and individuals.”

Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, who has introduced an identical bill, teaches a course called “Politics of Marijuana” at the College of New Jersey. He invited Forchion to be a guest lecturer two years ago.

“He was an outlier, but he brought an interesting discussion in the mix. He definitely opened eyes,” Gusciora said.

Students, he said, especially were interested in Forchion’s jury nullification arguments, and his explanation of how he had urged the Burlington County jury to find him not guilty of drug charges if it believed the drug laws were unjust. “Juries are supposed to deal with facts, not the law, but Weedman said that in New Jersey they are the deciders of the law,” Gusciora said.

The problem with Forchion, Gusciora said, is that he “pushes the envelope too far” and has used anti-police rhetoric to make his point. When Trenton police tried to restrict Forchion’s restaurant’s hours, he began holding up signs with an anti-police slogan.

Debi Madaio, Forchion’s restaurant partner and girlfriend, said she wishes Forchion would “fight smarter” to stay out of jail. “But we have to have people on the front line who will go to jail and get arrested so people like me don’t have to go to jail,” she said.

She said he often has “sacrificed his freedom” for the cause.

Forchion said his mother also tells him to “just shut up” because she, too, is worried about him serving time.

His father, Bob, says his son is “getting a raw deal.”

“I’m still proud of him no matter which way it goes. … Marijuana does less harm to people than alcohol and will probably bring in more money than alcohol for the state,” he said.

Ed Forchion said he would like to see the legalization bill allow people to grow marijuana. “It’s a plant,” he said.

The state chapter of the Drug Policy Alliance and the Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey also have raised this issue with lawmakers.

Ken Wolski, the coalition’s executive director, said patients need the ability to grow their own marijuana because cannabis companies might cater to the recreational market and neglect medical marijuana patients who need special strains for their ailments.

Wolski credicts Forchion for playing a significant role in the fight for legalization, but faults him for tactics that alienate police. “The laws are the problem, not the police who have to enforce the laws,” he said.

Still, Wolski’s organization supported Forchion in 2012 when he went on trial in Burlington County. A pound of marijuana was found in Forchion’s car. The jury would acquit him of charges of selling drugs, but was hung on a charge of simple possession. He pleaded guilty to that charge, in return for probation.

Justifying the support, Wolski, a nurse, cited Forchion’s health condition — bone tumors that Forchion sometimes terms as cancer.

Forchion said he knows he sometimes goes too far. But he said he “won’t capitulate. … Getting locked up for marijuana is absurd.”

Jan Hefler, Staff Writer

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