Side by side they sat at a stoplight in Mt. Holly, N.J., on the night of April 1, 2010—Ed Forchion in his Pontiac rental car and New Jersey State Trooper Ken Rayhon in his patrol cruiser. The light was taking an eternity to change, Forchion thought. He nonchalantly glanced over at Rayhon, who was staring back at him. His heart pounding, Forchion thought he saw the flash of the green arrow for his turning lane out of the corner of his eye, and he took his foot off the brake. But the light was still red, and the car lurched over the white line and several feet into the intersection before Forchion slammed on the brakes. Rayhon’s lights flipped on.
No, this cannot be happening again, Forchion thought.
It would take a little while, but Rayhon was about to learn a few things about the bearded black guy with the long dreads that he’d just pulled over. One: Forchion was the infamous “New Jersey Weedman”—unrepentant ganja smoker, loudmouth legalization advocate and longtime folk hero to a sizeable marijuana community in Philly, South Jersey and all across the nation that had also taken to calling him “Superhero of the Potheads.” Two: Forchion’s New Jersey driver’s license was suspended for failure to pay child support. And three: Forchion had a pound of high-grade, vacuum-sealed marijuana in a duffel bag in the trunk of his car.
To Forchion, a pound of weed is nothing. He could probably smoke all of it in one sitting. And hell, in 1997 he’d gotten busted in Bellmawr after trying to ship 40 pounds of marijuana from Arizona to New Jersey via FedEx, and faced 20 years in the slammer. During a three-year, antics-filled, headline-making odyssey through the Camden County court system, Forchion represented himself and attempted to use a controversial defense known as jury nullification—which relies on the power that juries have to acquit a defendant, despite the facts of the case, because they believe the law itself is flawed (provided the jury comes to a unanimous agreement)—to wiggle his way out of the jam. A sympathetic prosecutor offered him a 12th-hour deal in late 2000 for a drastically reduced sentence. It was an offer he couldn’t refuse, so he took it. Following his time behind bars, Forchion eventually made his way to Los Angeles, where he opened a medical marijuana dispensary. He was selling weed legally and making a decent living.
And then it all went up in smoke again the night Rayhon pulled him over. Rayhon smelled burning weed and saw a marijuana pipe on the floor behind the driver’s seat, ordered Forchion out of the car and arrested him for possession of marijuana paraphernalia. When Rayhon asked Forchion if he could search the vehicle, Forchion declined. Both Forchion and his car were hauled to the police barracks in Bordentown, and when Rayhon informed Forchion that a search warrant was pending, Forchion revealed he had the pound of weed in his trunk.
Forchion was eventually indicted on one count of felony possession with intent to distribute, and because of his prior conviction he now faces 12 years in jail. The Burlington County Prosecutor’s Office has already offered him a deal that would put him in the joint for about a year, but—haunted by regrets over taking a similar deal a decade ago—Forchion says he’s fighting this case to the bitter end. “Any deal that requires me to go to prison is not a deal to me,” he says. “I don’t want to spend four minutes in jail. I’m going all in. I want a fair and complete trial, and I want ... 12 of my peers, to decide my fate. I got arrested on April Fool’s Day, and pretty soon we’ll find out who’s the fool—me, or the state.”
The 47-year-old’s trial is set to begin at the Burlington County courthouse on Tues., Oct. 18. Again, he’s representing himself, and again he’s planning to use a jury nullification defense—a risky strategy that will put the marijuana laws themselves on trial. If he loses, he forfeits his freedom and squanders the modestly successful life he cultivated for himself with his second chance. But, absurd as it may sound, a Forchion victory means that not only would he beat the system, he could potentially weaken those existing laws and help legions of fellow weedheads to escape similar prosecution. “I want to be the Roe v. Wade of marijuana legalization,” says Forchion.
Before Forchion became Weedman nearly 15 years ago, he was just a coast-to-coast truck driver who loved to smoke pot. All day, every day. It also helped control his asthma, he claims. A dedicated toker since his mid-teens, Forchion discovered during one of his West Coast runs that the primo weed selling for upward of $1,000 a pound in New Jersey could be had for $300 a pound in Arizona. Forchion linked up with some Mexican drug dealers—they were the ones who first gave him the “New Jersey Weedman” nickname—both for his own supply and to act as a middleman, smuggling a few pounds here and there back to their East Coast network.
“They wanted me to haul heroin and cocaine, too,” says Forchion, “But I’m just about the weed.”
Soon, his weed runs became serious (and perilous) business. One time, he went to his Arizona connection to buy 30 pounds of marijuana, but they told him that a guy had come by the day before and bought up their entire supply. They told him to sit tight for a few days until their stock could be replenished, but then they approached Forchion the next day with news of a proposition: The driver for the guy who had bought all of their weed had chickened out, leaving the guy sitting in the desert with an RV packed with 500 pounds of marijuana. He needed someone to deliver the load to his people in Cleveland, and if Forchion did it, he could keep 100 pounds for himself. “There was no way I could pass that up,” says Forchion. So he went out to the desert, transferred the weed to his truck—hiding it deep inside a shipment of cantaloupes—and made the trek, terrified, but without incident. He took his cut to Camden, where over 10 days he managed to unload it all and pocket about $100,000. “I used it to buy my first house,” Forchion says proudly.
Over the next couple of years, Forchion made several similar journeys, and he was flush with cash. His confidence increasing with every successful run, he started taking more chances, too. Like shipping meticulously wrapped packages of weed from Arizona to his younger brother, Russell, back in Jersey via FedEx. One of those packages, containing 40 pounds of pot, didn’t arrive as scheduled, so Forchion decided to fly back home and find out what was up. Russell got a call from FedEx saying the shipment was late and would be there in two days, but unbeknownst to the Forchion brothers and a third accomplice, authorities had intercepted the package and set up a sting operation. Russell went to the designated location in Bellmawr to await the package—which was delivered by an undercover cop—while Weedman acted as lookout. After the exchange, nearly two-dozen state and federal law enforcement officers swooped in and arrested the three men. All were indicted on first-degree felonies—Russell got hit with possession with intent to distribute, and Ed with conspiracy—punishable by up to 20 years in prison. “That probably wasn’t my finest moment,” says Forchion.
Though his brother and the third accomplice were looking to cop pleas, Forchion decided to fight the charge. First, he stumbled onto the jury nullification defense, frequently employed with great success during both the Prohibition and slavery eras: Many jurors who were alcohol drinkers themselves refused to convict someone else for doing the same; others refused to convict those who violated what jurors considered to be an immoral Fugitive Slave Act.
The problem, however, is that opponents of jury nullification consider the tactic anarchy and a mockery of the system. Many judges will not allow it to be used, and defense attorneys are prohibited from using it because it goes against their oath to “uphold the law.” Only defendants who represent themselves can argue jury nullification. “It’s a rights/power dichotomy—courts have said that while juries have the power to do this thing, they don’t have the right, so you’re not allowed to argue it to them,” explains Houston-based lawyer Clay Conrad, author of the book Jury Nullification: The Evolution of a Doctrine (which Forchion consulted in preparation for his trial). “It’s something that’s been argued for hundreds of years, but as a practical matter, if you have power that you can’t be punished for exercising, how is that different from a right?”
That’s how Forchion saw it. But he had more ideas up his sleeve as his trial date loomed. He’d show up at pre-trial hearings wearing a T-shirt with a huge middle finger on it. He started turning up at various public places—in front of the Liberty Bell, at the New Jersey State House in Trenton, even in New Jersey Rep. Rob Andrews’ office—where he’d light up a joint to protest marijuana prohibition. Occasionally he was arrested, but each time the charges were dismissed. He even got on the ballot to run against Andrews for his 1st Congressional seat as a candidate from his self-formed Legalize Marijuana Party.
Because Forchion was facing 20 years on the conspiracy charge, most people thought he’d gone crazy sticking his thumb in the eye of the system like that. But there was a method to his madness: Forchion was trying to get as much media coverage as possible, to get his name on the minds of people with the intention of swaying potential jurors to either agree with his position or at least sympathize with his plight—that he was simply a harmless pothead and that the law, and his possible sentence, was just too harsh.
He certainly got attention. Forchion came off likable, good-natured, funny and exceptionally sharp during his myriad interviews with TV stations and newspapers.
“People always tell me, ‘Dude, I thought you were just some stoner.’ I’m like, ‘I am, but that doesn’t mean I gotta be dumb,’” Forchion says.
Still, his brother—the one actually caught holding the 40 pounds of weed—wasn’t exactly down with Forchion’s antics. “I was like, ‘Don’t be so public,’” says Russell, now 42. “The evidence on me was really bad, so, I didn’t want him pissing [the state] off where instead of me facing 20 years, it was gonna be 30 years. Don’t get me wrong, we’ve always been close, but right there I really wanted him to chill out.”
As the trial was about to begin, Russell accepted a deal: seven years, but he’d be out in five months, released to New Jersey’s Intensive Supervision Program (ISP), where he’d live as normal but be closely monitored for another 26 months. Forchion remained determined to fight. But things in the courtroom started poorly. The judge barred Forchion from using his jury-nullification defense (Forchion brought it up anyway in his 20-minute opening statement), and denied him his witnesses—individuals Forchion planned to call on to testify about the validity of jury nullification or why marijuana is beneficial and should be legal.
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