And yet, Forchion’s desperate arguments—and his undeniable charisma—appeared to have some effect. One juror started crying after his compelling opening statement, insisting she couldn’t convict him. She got tossed from the jury. And then Camden County prosecutor John Wynne offered Forchion a deal—a 10-year flat sentence, but he’d be out and placed into ISP within three-to-six months. “I felt sorry for him and I felt that he was definitely gonna get convicted,” says Wynne, who’s now a criminal defense attorney. “I gave him a sweetheart deal because he’s a nice guy, a hard worker, he’s got kids, he’s got support obligations, and I felt he shouldn’t go to prison for a long time.”
But, Wynne admits, the notion that Forchion’s jury-nullification strategy could actually work—perhaps setting a precedent for other similar cases—also played into his decision to extend the deal. “I didn’t want the jury to say that the drug law was not good,” says Wynne. “There was always a chance that they would, and my attitude was, why risk that?”
Forchion called his father, who urged him to take the deal “for the sake of his kids.” Forchion had four kids then, he’s got five now—a 26-year-old daughter and four other children ranging in age from 4 to 16. So he took the deal. But on one condition: He asked the judge if he could poll the jury to see how many would have voted to acquit. Surprisingly, the judge agreed. “I think everyone in the courtroom was just really curious,” says Forchion. Four jurors raised their hands. Not enough for jury nullification, but enough for a hung jury and a mistrial. “I was kicking myself,” says Forchion. “I could have gone free.”
On Dec. 1, 2000, Forchion reported to (now-demolished) Riverfront State Prison in Camden, expecting a short stay. But a month in, he got a letter from ISP saying that he was ineligible for the program, though no reason was provided. Suddenly, Forchion was looking at serving his 10-year sentence, at least until whenever the parole board got around to considering his release. “I was completely bamboozled,” says Forchion. But he hatched a plan. He had a friend on the outside set up njweedman.com that detailed Forchion’s newest predicament and urged people to call judges, the prison, local politicians, the media, anybody. Then, Forchion tried to have his name legally changed to “njweedman.com”—a stunt designed to get the press to report on it and get his website URL into the public consciousness. The ploy worked—newspapers ran stories, people called, and on April 3, 2002, Forchion was released to ISP.
Forchion’s freedom was short-lived. As a condition of his parole he was forbidden to talk publicly about marijuana legalization. Yet Forchion promptly did just that, speaking to newspapers—including PW , which ran a cover story on Forchion in May 2002—and even filming a pro-marijuana commercial that aired on New Jersey cable TV. Forchion’s parole was revoked and he was sent back to jail in August 2002. But once again he had a plan. He filed a writ of habeas corpus claiming his First Amendment right to free speech had been violated, and a federal judge agreed, springing him in January 2003 and sending him back into ISP. When Forchion’s ISP ended in December 2003, he hopped on a PATCO train to Philly, headed over to the Liberty Bell, and sparked up a joint in celebration.
But there was little else to be happy about. During his legal ordeal his truck got repossessed, so he had to get a job pumping gas. His second wife divorced him. “She hated being called ‘Mrs. Weedman,’” says Forchion. “Whenever I got arrested it hurt the family, and her family thought she was married to an idiot.” Meanwhile, his brother Russell’s young son was involved in pee-wee football, and because Russell had done his time quietly, he was able to help coach his son’s team. But when Forchion’s then-8-year-old son wanted to join the team and have his dad coach, too, Forchion found out he wasn’t welcome because he was considered a bad influence. “That really hurt,” says Forchion, “but there was nothing I could do about it.”
But the man with the litany of crazy plans had yet another scheme in the works. He flew out to Los Angeles in early 2008, crashed on friends’ couches, and obtained all the necessary permits to open a medical marijuana dispensary. In September of that year, he opened the Liberty Bell Temple—the name paying homage to his Philly pot protests—on bustling Hollywood Boulevard. Suddenly, he was selling weed. Legally.
Business started booming, and once again Forchion was living the high life. Members of the extensive Marley clan, former NBA stars and rappers galore started frequenting his shop. Forchion was on the VIP guest list at the Playboy Mansion and all the hottest parties in town—provided, at first, that he bring the weed, but later because he was just a fun guy to have around. He hung out in the studio with rapper Nas. He wrote an autobiography titled Public Enemy #420 . He appeared on TMZ several times. And he’s been shopping his life story around Hollywood in the hope it’ll get turned into a feature film, ideally starring CSI ’s Gary Dourdan as Weedman, says Forchion. He adds that high-powered Hollywood agent Roeg Sutherland—half-brother of actor Kiefer Sutherland—has already expressed interest in the project.
Not everything has been perfect out West. Forchion is convinced authorities follow him around constantly and monitor his phones; he uses prepaid cell phones to conduct some of his business. Nearly two years ago, he says, he was expecting a box full of money from New Jersey via FedEx (Forchion declines to comment on who sent the money or why), and when he opened his door the box was sitting on his stoop. So were three DEA agents. “They were like, ‘Is this yours?’” Forchion recalls. “I thought about it for a second, and they were like, “If this is not yours, we’ll just take it and go.’ I knew it was a lot of money and it was mine. But I said ‘No.’” The agents confiscated the cash—about $28,000, Forchion estimates. “I just chalked it up as a loss.”
All in all, though, things were going nicely. So why risk everything by coming back to New Jersey and driving around late at night with a suspended license and a pound of marijuana in the trunk? “I’m the Weedman,” he shrugs. “Gotta have some weed.”
“Believe me, that wasn’t the plan,” Forchion continues. “I wasn’t on no political mission, I was just home visiting my kids for Easter weekend.” Forchion says he brought the weed with him on the flight from Los Angeles—“Man, it’s easy. Do you know how many people I know who fly with weed?”—and that it was his own personal stash. “To me, a pound of weed is like a carton of cigarettes. You just get it in bulk so you don’t gotta keep going out and getting more.”
When he was pulled over, cops confiscated the more than $2,000 he had in his pocket—money he says was intended as Easter presents for his kids. “I take care of all of them financially, I just don’t really believe in giving [child support] to the state,” he says. “I give my kids cash all the time, way above and beyond what the state says I owe.”
After posting $13,000 to get out of jail, Forchion spent his flight back to Hollywood first beating himself up over getting arrested, then formulating a plan of action. “It feels like my destiny, like I’m picking up where I left off,” he says. “I was just meant to be a weed warrior, I guess.”
Emboldened by the fact that he’d swayed four jurors in his trial a decade ago, Forchion’s trying jury nullification again, and this time, he says, the current climate regarding marijuana works in his favor. After all, New Jersey now has a medical marijuana law on the books, and weed is more mainstream and acceptable than ever. “People used to think you were a complete nutbag when you argued for legalization, but now they’re totally open to it,” he says.
Forchion plans to argue to the jury that New Jersey’s medical marijuana law (which says that weed has medicinal value) both supersedes and invalidates the state’s criminal law, which dictates that marijuana is illegal because it has no medicinal value. (“You can’t have it both ways,” Forchion reasons). He’s going to play the sympathy card by showing jurors medical documentation of the bone tumors in his leg—he’s says he’s been suffering from them for more than a decade; so far they’ve all been benign—that he claims he’s been treating with marijuana. He’ll explain that the pound of weed was all for him, that he had no intentions of selling it. He’ll tell them he believes he was racially profiled during his arrest. He’ll tell them he’s a practicing Rastafarian and he has religious reasons for toking up. He plans to call witnesses to testify how silly marijuana laws are. And if all else fails, he’ll beg. “I’m not gonna spend every day begging but I am sure gonna beg from time to time, ‘Please don’t put me in jail,’” says Forchion. “It’s part of my strategy.”
Because he lives in California now, Forchion hasn’t been able to pull off quite the same pre-trial antics as before in an attempt to get local media attention and influence the jury pool, but he’s tried. During one motion hearing, when the judge asked him if he understood the ramifications of defending himself in court, Forchion got some laughs when he said that he did because “I watch Law & Order .” He got his name on the ballot to run for the New Jersey General Assembly in the 8th District in next month’s election. He also sent an inflammatory letter to Burlington County prosecutor Michael Luciano, who he’ll be facing in court: “I’m hoping for and counting on you being as big a failure in this case as the entire drug war you whore yourself out to is to our nation,” Forchion wrote. “May history look back at you as history does to [Prohibition enforcement agent] Eliott Ness. He’s a loser.” (Luciano did not respond to phone calls seeking comment for this article). “I hope they introduce that into the trial,” Forchion explains. “They might use it to make me look bad, but I think if they read it, the jurors will agree with what I’m saying.”
Forchion also wrote letters to Luciano and the judge demanding they not try to “bribe” him with a plea deal. “I remember how they bamboozled me last time,” he says. “I am not taking a deal.” But former prosecutor Wynne thinks Forchion should take the most recent offer—two years, out in 12 months—if it’s still on the table. “He’s playing with fire big-time,” says Wynne, noting that Burlington County jurors are much more conservative than Camden County jurors. “I just don’t see that he’s gonna get 12 people to go along with, ‘Marijuana is my life, and even though the law says that I’m guilty, you should let me go because I’m a nice guy and the law is not fair.” I’d hate to see him fight it and lose and get a 10-year sentence where he’d have to do five years before he’s even eligible for parole. A 12-month sentence, you know, it’s a year of his life, but it’s better than giving up five years of his life.”
Russell Forchion, who plans to attend the trial, doesn’t think that’s the best advice. “Prison is a terrible place,” he says. “I wouldn’t try to coach him into jail. I want him to fight, and I want him to win.”
Forchion could conceivably get a hung jury and a mistrial, which might wind up being a win, depending on how many jurors side with him. “If it’s 11 for conviction and one for acquittal, a prosecutor is likely to try again,” says Conrad. “But if it’s eight to four, the prosecutor is likely to dismiss the case because courtroom time is very expensive and they’re not gonna spend hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars on a pothead, especially not in this economic climate.”
The long, strange saga of Ed "NJ Weedman" Forchion—marijuana folk hero and New Jersey weed activist-turned-California weed capitalist—has taken a turn for the worse.
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