TRENTON, N.J. – A surprise police raid of NJWeedman’s Joint in downtown Trenton, and the arrest of the Weedman himself, caused a minor media stir last week, inspiring questions among the cannabis curious around the country. Namely: Who is this odd character who calls himself NJWeedman?
As a longtime medical marijuana advocate and cannabis chronicler, I can tell you he’s no stranger to those of us here in the Garden State. Allow me to fill you in.
Ed Forchion, a.k.a. NJWeedman, is the seminal cannabis reformer on the East Coast. I know that’s saying a lot. But NJWeedman is no joke. He's spent too much time in jail for what many of us do every day to be laughed off.
His own story of personal transformation from Ed Forchion to NJ Weedman makes for a fascinating tale. My NJ.com colleague Kevin Shea chronicled that history in a nice piece posted a couple days ago. I’ll nutshell it for you: A recreational cannabis user since his teens, Forchion began using medical marijuana in 2001 after a cancer diagnosis. Forchion emerged as an activist in the late 1990s, and has since run for local, county, and congressional offices. He's aiming for Congress again this year to represent Trenton, Princeton, and the rest of New Jersey’s 12th District. Between tilts at elected office, NJWeedman also spent a lot of time in jail and defending himself in court.
Last year Forchion opened his eatery, NJWeedman's Joint. Trenton is, putting it kindly, a culinary wasteland. Having a place with fruit smoothies and decent food was a welcome addition to the neighborhood. For $9, you might try the Chris Christie Burger, a "sliced glazed doughnut w/mac & cheese served between two turkey burgers."
Why turkey burgers?
"Because Chris Christie is a turkey," customers were told.
NJWeedman is a large, outspoken, dreadlocked African-American activist whose flair for civil disobedience has now and then made many in the reform movement uncomfortable. But Forchion's unwavering commitment to drug reform — on his own terms — has earned him the sometimes grudging respect of allies and detractors alike.
I once invited NJWeedman to speak at a State House press conference in Trenton. I hoped to communicate a clear message about a component of the state’s medical marijuana program. When NJWeedman took the microphone, he promptly wandered off message with a thoughtful but winding soliloquy about medical cannabis and where it fits into the larger constellation of reform efforts. I felt like he crashed my press conference. And I was pissed that he had the temerity to point out that not everyone has the luxury of a small-steps approach.
Looking back, NJWeedman was right. It's easy to be pragmatic in the leafy suburbs. And in retrospect, nothing about his message undermined my goal of getting medical marijuana into the hands of sick people.
Recently, Trenton's all-Democratic City Council tabled a cannabis reform resolution. Instead of having the guts to vote no, the council simply wished the issue into purgatory. After the non-vote, Forchion lit up a joint right there in council chambers, thus bringing maximum media attention to the council’s act of cowardice.
There is Method to His Oddness
Last week’s police action actually almost fits into NJWeedman’s long game.
Forchion’s restaurant and “cannabis church” wasn’t quietly closed down by local authorities. It was raided by a narcotics squad clad in full tactical gear. Police came in as if they were expecting the climactic shootout in The Departed. That in itself garnered the kind of media scrutiny that rarely happens when a person of color is arrested for cannabis. Officers with assault rifles took ten people into custody, including several patients registered with New Jersey’s medical marijuana program.
East Coast Cannabis Coalition's Vanessa Maria told Leafly the police lacked the tools to properly verify state medical marijuana ID cards, which those patients had in their possession. That’s news that might send shivers down the spines of the 6,126 MMJ patients registered in New Jersey. It also gives the public some insight into the mindset of the police conducting the raid. They went in expecting to fight it out with hardened criminals. They did not expect to open the doors and find law-abiding, state-registered medical marijuana patients.
In addition to the ten people arrested, the police also walked away with two automobiles, surveillance gear, computer equipment, and — according to the prosecutor's math — cannabis worth $19,000.
NJWeedman was out of jail 30 hours later, defiantly smoking a joint on camera while vowing to keep fighting his fight his way.
“It may have been worth a few hundred dollars, but $19,000 … are they crazy?” Forchion told the Trentonian. “Just about everyone here is a smoker. So yes, there’s weed here. But there’s no distribution going on. They exaggerated big-time.”
"Sharing is part of the culture,” Forchion added. “I share because I care, and it’s wrong for them to criminalize that. A lot of people come in here and we share. Sharing is not selling. We’re not running any kind of illegal enterprise out of here.”
The gross disparities in the application of our cannabis laws is hardly a secret. Nationally, people of color are four times more likely be arrested for cannabis than white people. Ed Forchion brings those racial and class contrasts into sharp, sobering relief.
The Enemy of Prohibition is My Friend
If the police raid was intended to discourage New Jersey’s cannabis movement, it achieved just the opposite effect. NJWeedman can be a controversial, contentious figure within the state’s advocacy community. But the raid has — at least for the time being —rallied the community around his cause.
"The raid was an intentional attack on the cannabis movement in New Jersey," Kyle Moore told Leafly. Moore is a candidate for Congress in New Jersey’s 3rd Congressional District, who, like Forchion, is running under the banner of the Legalize Marijuana Party. "Sending dozens of police officers with semi-machine guns is just another way of sending a message. The drug war has relied on brute oppression for the last several decades, and will continue to do so until we as a society say 'enough is enough!'"
"Edward Forchion's multiple arrests for cannabis [typically] result in jail time, fines, unemployment, civil asset forfeiture, surveillance, profiling, harassment, loss of child custody, and housing issues," Maria, of the East Coast Cannabis Coalition, told Leafly. "These injustices are typical in communities of color, which are disproportionately targeted for drug arrests and police harassment. This is a stark contrast to the white ganjapreneurs who are enjoying the vast profits being made from cannabis legalization."
She's right. Instead of celebrating and rewarding Forchion's entrepreneurial, civic-minded spirit, we send him to jail.
Bill Wolfe, who runs a government watchdog website, echoed the sentiment: "The Weedman’s Joint is pioneering exactly the kind of community places we need to restore democracy, create space for the artistic community and alternative ways of life.”
"If I could describe NJWeedman in one word, it's resilient. I have never seen anyone take a beating and get right back up like NJWeedman," said Moore, the congressional candidate.
"Every time the authorities punish him, he comes back stronger and more dedicated,” Moore added. “I think the Trenton police raid just opened up Pandora’s box. The last time the state arrested NJWeedman for cannabis was in 2010. He’s attempting to appeal that case all the way to the Supreme Court."
“When will New Jersey authorities learn to just leave this man alone?”
Moore tells Leafly his run for Congress was inspired by Forchion, who also also ran for office several times, including once in 2005 for New Jersey governor, on a “Legalize Marijuana” ticket. Forchion nabbed 9,138 votes in that election.
''Me running for office is just giving other people the opportunity to participate in my protest,'' he said at the time. ''I would love to get 5,000 or 10,000 people to vote for me. It would be a symbolic thing.''
For years he’s been dismissed as a fringe outlier. But with each passing year, NJWeedman becomes increasingly mainstream.
One of Trenton's top lobbyists, Bill Caruso, shared this anecdote with Leafly: "I first met Ed when he came into [then-Congressman Rob Andrews’] district office in the late 1990s to light a joint in protest of marijuana laws. Our 70-something receptionist, who had respiratory problems, asked him to take it outside. When he did not comply with her request, I convinced him to wait on the sidewalk. But prior to walking out, he took a long drag off the joint and blew it in my face. The police arrested him. The officer asked if I wanted to press charges against him for blowing smoke at me."
"I grinned and told him ‘No, but I would love a cheeseburger!’”
Caruso, the consummate New Jersey political insider, now serves on the board of New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform.
Will These Charges Stick?
“I’m a proponent of jury nullification, and I’m going to take this to trial,” Forchion said late last week. “Once again I get to publicly argue my case in court and be David fighting the Goliath of government.”
NJWeedman has lived on the tip of the spear of New Jersey’s cannabis reform movement for more than 20 years. He'd probably tell you he hasn’t changed much in the last couple decades. The rest of the world is simply catching up to him.
But as last week's police raid shows, there's still quite a long way to go.
Image Source: Erica Brown