Joint Effort: Nation's Leading Pro-Marijuana Group Is Too White to Succeed

By Michael Alan Goldberg
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 19 | Posted Apr. 20, 2011

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Dougherty acknowledges that it’s difficult to argue the civil-rights angle when those most affected by marijuana prohibition aren’t engaged in the fight. “People of color are the ones mainly being arrested for these crimes,” he says after the meeting. “So they need to be out on the streets with us marching against this and being vocal about it … It can’t be just a bunch of white people that’s gonna get [legalization] done.”

Once busted himself for pot possession, Dougherty also recognizes that the effort to draw in people of color, or to even talk about legalization as a civil-rights issue, is exceedingly difficult given the perception, fair or not, that NORML is just looking out for whites.

And while Dougherty concedes that NORML could put more effort into outreach—“We can definitely do more …we need to get involved in those areas of the city”—he also says activism is a two-way street. “We can only reach out so much—there’s got to be a hand on the other side to reach out to.”

St. Pierre agrees on both fronts. “We are shooting ourselves in the foot eternally if we do not do this minority outreach.” But, he adds, they “must be willing to reach out to NORML, too. “To stick your head in the firing line, you could lose your family, your profession, your freedom, all of those things. But for true reform to happen, the aggrieved have to make self-sacrifices. The minority community has to take responsibility and have the courage to step up and become engaged in their own liberation. It’s astounding how much reform has already happened with so little resources. If we could even get one percent of minority cannabis users in this country to put some skin in the game, we could win this pretty easily.”

And minorities do appear reluctant to join one of the biggest civil-rights issues facing them. As much as NORML hasn’t reached out to them, they haven’t shown much interest in publicly advocating for legalization, either. The biggest impediment? Fear of becoming even more of a target for harassment or arrest than they already are.

“I think that maybe a lot of white people forget that it’s a privilege to be able to come out and say publicly, ‘I smoke weed and this is something I feel should be able to do.’ You can’t really do that when you’re black,” says “Frida,” a 21-year-old Drexel student and one of the two non-white people at the PhillyNORML meeting (she requested anonymity).

“Hell no!” says a 34-year-old black man and proud weed smoker, waiting for a bus near Ridge and Cecil B. Moore avenues, when asked if he’d fight for his right to toke. “They’ll come knockin’ at my door and lock my ass up!” he says, looking over at his friend and laughing.

Lesra, a 22-year-old Drexel student and aspiring rapper who says he’s been stopped-and-frisked countless times since he was 14, says, “Black people don’t protest weed laws ’cause we don’t fuck with cops.”

Another issue, says Linn Washington—a Temple journalism professor who has written extensively about the war on weed and is an advocate of marijuana legalization—is that Philly’s minority community leaders lack the will to encourage the cause of legalization to their constituents. He points to the vilification of Alice Huffman, president of the California NAACP, who last year endorsed California’s pro-legalization Proposition 19 ballot initiative (which ultimately failed to pass) on the grounds that it was a civil-rights issue. She was then blasted by anti-legalization forces, particularly the black church. “It is a ridiculous thought to advocate for blacks to stay high … how do you educate an intoxicated mind?” Bishop Ron Allen, president of the International Faith Based Coalition and one of Huffman’s fiercest critics, told NPR last year.

“Who wants to be vilified for this?” says Washington. “Society has pushed this discussion of marijuana prohibition to the fringes of the public debate, so anybody who brings [legalization] up is seen as some sort of radical or just an outright nut. Many of these leaders—whether elected or appointed or self-presumed—are so timid when it comes to this issue. They’d rather go along to get along.”

And then there’s the curious case of Ed Forchion, better known around these parts as “NJWeedman,” which illustrates a gulf in tactics that exists between NORML and some in the black community. For the better part of a decade, Forchion was the loudest, most visible black weed activist in South Jersey and Philly (if not the nation)—a cult hero of sorts that people took to calling the “Superhero of the Potheads.”

A one-time long-haul trucker and unrepentant cross-country weed smuggler, Forchion was busted by Camden County cops in 1997 with 40 pounds of marijuana and faced 20 years in jail. For three years, he tried to wiggle his way out of the charges, waging a public battle against the state of New Jersey and the nation’s marijuana laws. Along the way, he formed the one-man Legalize Marijuana Party and unsuccessfully ran for the U.S. House and the New Jersey General Assembly. Finally, in 2000, he took a plea deal, served 17 months, and was paroled on the condition that he wouldn’t publicly advocate the use of marijuana. Forchion promptly filmed and aired a series of pro-weed commercials on local TV and got tossed back in prison, where he filed a writ of habeas corpus (styled after Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”) claiming he’d been unlawfully imprisoned for exercising his right to free speech. A federal judge agreed and sprung him after five months.

Forchion, now 46, then started smoking weed regularly in front of the Liberty Bell and other public places to protest marijuana laws—he’s been arrested over 30 times—and then split three years ago for Los Angeles, where he currently operates a weed dispensary called the Liberty Bell Temple and runs two growing operations. Last year, during a visit home he got busted in Mt. Holly, N.J. with a pound of weed in his trunk. He’s awaiting a court date this summer, where he intends to once again put weed laws on trial as part of his defense. But he won’t be calling NORML for support.

“I reached out to NORML so many times, but they never wanted any part of me,” says Forchion over the phone. “I needed their help when I was fighting these stupid-ass laws, and I tried to get involved with what they were doing and bring all my supporters to them, but I was never accepted.”

Forchion says NORML founder Keith Stroup has called him a “joke” and a “loser,” telling him that his antics helped set the marijuana reform movement back.

“I was basing my protests on civil disobedience, like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King did,” Forchion argues. “I took it as a civil-rights argument from the very beginning, and NORML never talked about it like that until recently.”

When asked about Forchion, Dougherty smiles. It’s obvious he’s got at least some admiration for the Weedman’s cojones, but he sticks to the party line. “NORML’s official policy is no civil disobedience. We have to go through the system.”

St. Pierre isn’t quite so diplomatic. “The problem is, [Forchion’s] the wrong voice. He wanted to legally change his name to ‘Just A Nigga.’ How embarrassing is that to the black community? … Unfortunately he’s scared the bejeezus out of people from Newark to Philly because he’s a loose cannon … that nobody wants to get close to.

“From an activist point of view he’s a negative force,” St. Pierre continues. “He’s not a credible change agent … Repulsing and turning off the body politic may feel good, and I’ve been there, I’ve done it. But in the end, we want results.”

But Prof. Washington, who’s written about Forchion’s exploits over the years, thinks NORML missed a golden opportunity to connect with the black community.

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Comments 1 - 19 of 19
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1. Anonymous said... on Apr 20, 2011 at 10:50AM

“I want to thank you for this article. I have been part of NORML for two years, and this is something that concerns me, the lack of minorities. The marijuana prohibitionists seem to have a wealth of minorities, and their movement seems quite diverse.
From what I can tell over the past two years, minorities definitely are far more likely to take the rap for the drug war than whites. It is amazing it is a 4 to 1 ratio, and I think this shows that marijuana prohibition was produced in the first place to affect minorities the most. One statistic is that there are more young black males in prisons in the US than all the slaves during any time when slavery was part of this country.
I do not know what to make of this. Do we try to reach out to people in North Philly?”

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2. Anonymous said... on Apr 20, 2011 at 12:02PM

“When it comes to reaching out to people of color, specifically black people. NORML has two problems. First, they don't understand urban culture. But secondly and most importantly. When it comes to Cannabis, black people in general are ignorant. Urban culture glorifies gang/crime/baller lifestyles, weed is an integral part of that and as such is generally portrayed negatively in the black community. This negativity, along with ignorance about Cannabis in general keeps people that don't know and feel as if they are unaffected by prohibition from caring. All they know is it's illegal, thus it's bad. It it that type of ignorance you must deal with to reach the black community. And it's sad. Because the people that should care the most, are the ones allowing gangs to run the streets and cause chaos. Until you get the black community to educate themselves, you're fucked on the legalization front. At least if you expect support from the community as a whole. And yes, I'm black.”

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3. H. Scarborough said... on Apr 20, 2011 at 02:52PM

“I'm African American and I don't like the idea of catering to any specific community or race. I think this issue should be used to attract people in the business world. It was easier to legalize alcohol because their was a plan in place to sell it. Right now all weed is sold on street corners and alleys regardless of what nationality is buying it. If we sell weed in CVS whose is paying for security, distribution and taxes? People are begging to legalize weed, with no plan as to how and where it is to be sold.”

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4. defected.saint said... on Apr 20, 2011 at 03:47PM

“That's incorrect. In Washington state, there is a very smart and sensible plan being trying to be placed in action. They are trying to legalize marijuana and sell it through ABC stores. This has I think this should be done nationally. But at the same time you should still be allowed to grow your own. People do have plans and ideas though.”

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5. Anonymous said... on Apr 20, 2011 at 05:47PM

“Oh ok,
So once again its a race issue. Why are more blacks arrested for pot? Why are more blacks in prison? Oh whoa is me, it must be a rascist thing. Why aren't more blacks in NORML? Maybe they just don't care and are too busy getting high and gang banging. But the title of your article stating that NORML is too white is offensive to me!!”

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6. JC said... on Apr 21, 2011 at 09:26AM

“Why don't they start a prison outreach system and work on getting blacks that are already in jail for minor marijuana offences to spread the word to their families and community? I mean, they're already in jail, so it's not like they fear having marijuana permanently attached to their record like other who have not been arrested and jailed. Plus prisoners can sometimes have more focus and drive as a result of the sheer boredom of being locked up.”

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7. decendantofaslave said... on Apr 21, 2011 at 04:33PM

“they stay away from normal meeting because everyone knows the feds are n the room, already sterotyped, dont need more s---- from the feds, look at it this way, danny castro just got off, would u trust this guy in your group no, hes a real cop , hell set u up, we must prepare for the fight, anyone that has been perfect , never done any wrong in life, i cant trust that type of person”

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8. Anonymous said... on Apr 21, 2011 at 07:11PM

“See I never knew of NORML, and that what's up that people are trying to legalize pot, which is definitely good. But the whole stoner/pothead/weed enthusiast is in fact almost white. And that's because white people do share more liberties when it comes to public demos. Blacks, or in my world hispanics, see weed strictly as money and good bud. No spiritual attachment. Organizations like NORML won't get people form the hood w/o some kind of gimmick. But I would love to join. And btw where's the latino voice in this? Weed still has to come form south of the border if it ain't in a grow room”

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9. Jim Russo said... on Apr 22, 2011 at 07:10AM

“Wow, is this the logical extension of our obsession with "diversity" and multiculturism"? Does one's race, class, gender, sexual orientation necessarily preclude one to have certain views on an issue? Perhaps social and political issues are shaped by things more complex.
Perhaps minority communities are dealing with far more pressing matters than toking with impunity...
Perhaps ALL people in these times are far more concerned with jobs, crime, taxes, education, etc...
Perhaps demographically challenged NORML could do better to make inroads with ALL manner of people...I'm "white" and I sure as hell don't see a lot of people "like me" blowing smoke over legalization...”

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10. said... on Apr 24, 2011 at 02:18AM

“I've heard it over n over again. I'd prob have a degree by now. Jury nullivication. Let ppl no their rights. Luv.”

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11. Zardoz said... on Apr 24, 2011 at 08:26AM

“I wasn't aware of the racial disparity in NORML and it should be corrected. We need to make a lot of headway in both the African American and Latino communities, because polls show that a majority of both groups still favors the anti-cannabis laws. Of course, this will take some time to correct, but we should start doing this now.

My hat is off to Mr. Forchion.”

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12. NJWeedman said... on Apr 24, 2011 at 04:34PM

I want to make this clear. I had nothing bad to say about phillynorml, i did say norml national was clueless and uninterested in issues in the "minority community".

I been aware of norml's unflattering thoughts about me since the 90's but Allan St. Peirre has changed his tune to i see.

Here is a quote of his from 2002 about me -- "NORML's St. Pierre implicitly acknowledged that Forchion's tactics left him largely isolated from more mainstream drug reformers and that Forchion didn't have much nice to say about such groups, but then added that Forchion was a true fighter for the cause. "If we had a thousand Ed Forchions, the law would have been changed long ago," said St. Pierre. " -- google it,

( )


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13. Anonymous said... on Apr 25, 2011 at 07:42AM

“So, now the focus is on "racism", rather than the true issue at hand. This should not turn into a black/white/brown issue but a GREEN issue. I do think its a cultural thing rather than a "white" thing when it comes to NORML. Anonymous #8 post said it best, so read that also. Unfortunately, I think NJWeedman draws alot of negative attention because of how is doing and saying what he is trying to convey. I do feel that people have the right to say n think the way the want, no matter how ridiculous or ignorant we may think it may seem. Anyway, enough time wasted!! We need Strong Minded, Intelligent, Highly Motivated men and women in order for us to get the laws changed. We need to be taken seriously and treated with respect and not like lazy, unmotivated "potheads" just trying to get high legally. I am a collage graduate with 2 very successful sons, afflicted with an illness not a "pothead" asking can u pass me the blunt.”

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14. njweedman said... on Apr 25, 2011 at 12:02PM

“ANONYMOUS SAID ---->“So, now the focus is on "racism"

No the focus isnt on racism (it should), this is just one article of many on marijuana this week but as usual this individual doesnt want to talk about the RACISM ASPECT of the drug war. This is the exact reason the all white norml national bunch has never looked favorably towards me.

Im know the drug war is racist, as do the thousands of brown faces in prison. Norml national doesnt know our plight, dont share our concerns and just isnt on ourside. ive been speaking out against the racist war on drugs for years, norml national has called me negative and a bunch of other things over the years because they cant walk in our shoes, wear or afros or dreads and they dont see what im talking about. So i called negative.

“Smoke-out at the Liberty Bell,” Goldstein half-jokes,
THAT SOUNDS LIKE CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE TO ME!!! I been doing that since 1998 and I was called negative for it.

FOR TOBACCO USE ONLY <---- Why LIE, stop being a panzy”

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15. Anonymous said... on Apr 25, 2011 at 12:14PM

“ANONYMOUS SAID -->We need Strong Minded, Intelligent, Highly Motivated men and women in order for us to get the laws changed. We need to be taken seriously and treated with respect and not like lazy, unmotivated "potheads" just trying to get high legally. I am a collage graduate with 2 very successful sons, afflicted with an illness not a "pothead" asking can u pass me the blunt.”

Im strong minded ( thats why i do what i want regardless),Intelligent ( my i.q is 115-118),highly motivated ( always been motivated 2 do something about shit that bothered me) and while I consider it a compliment to be called a POTHEAD (dont call me a christian) and i dont smoke (tobacco) blunts. BUT IM BLACK so that rules me out with you and the norml national bunch.

Through out my ordeals and trials ive been self employeed, owning serveral businesss. I own 3 now! I even have 10 employees now. If i wasnt black and didnt talk about the racist aspect of the war on drugs i could be a poster child for norml.”

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16. ReedinPA said... on Apr 29, 2011 at 01:22AM

“Oh there's a big problem alright! The author is apparently not colorblind like we NORML people are. We welcome anyone, and we come from diverse micro-cultures, regardless of our so-called skin color. I'm even offended to be called "White"; a racial slur of sorts, in this context for sure.
Appreciative of our diverse heritage, each of us at the meetings has had specific experiences in our lives, even with law enforcement, that have led us to be here fighting for the cause to end Marijuana Prohibition. We are veterans of this effort, some of us for many years. To say that we're "too white" is really a failure on the author's part to recognize what each of us, individually, brings to the table. There is no ethnic filter at the door with slots for a certain number of this kind or that kind; that would be absurd. we are colorblind; it's about the green kind. It's about the reality of each of us being persecuted and maligned for our association with the herb we know to be good. (see next)”

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17. ReedinPA said... on Apr 29, 2011 at 01:24AM

“And now we are doing something about it, professionally, with some success. Shame on you for taking a dump on our efforts with your divisive high-contrast spectacles. Your citation of Chris Goldstein's efforts facilitating the SAM program should make it perfectly clear that we are advocates for everyone, including those *group-labeled* statistically most affected by prohibition.”

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18. Anonymous said... on Apr 30, 2011 at 09:38PM

“Look, the truth is, all PhillyNORML members are volunteers. None get paid for what they do. They only have a certain amount of personal time to put towards this effort, and most of that time goes towards education, fundraising, event planning, and working towards getting legislation passed. They don't have an office, so their bi-monthly meetings provide a place for interested parties to attend, get to know the group, and get more involved. Maybe this will spur them to hold meetings in North Philly, or reach out somehow to minority groups, but as Anonymous #2 and #8 said, it's really not that simple.”

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19. Neal Smith said... on May 9, 2011 at 06:16PM

“I am Chairman of Indiana NORML. We would love for more Black and Latinos to stand with us, and we have done everything we can think of to increase minority membership. We have worked minority neighborhoods, We have had a presence at Black Expo, and hope to be there this year. No one from the minority community is coming forward.

We stand for freedom for all people. If minorities want their own organization, we're happy to help them in any way we can. These laws are obviously racist, and have to be changed. We will continue to work and welcome any serious efforts by any minority anywhere at any time to join with us, affiliate with us or ally with us. I know of no member or director of any NORML chapter in the nation who would not extend the hand of friendship and brotherhood. We're all in this together.”


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