Ed Forchion, aka the New Jersey Weedman, is willing to risk his freedom to put marijuana laws on trial.
Ed Forchion is no saint. If his arrest record were of the musical variety, it would be a double album or a boxed set. And yet in these warped through-the-looking-glass times we live in, where official truth more often than not turns out to be a lie, Ed Forchion, 38, is something of a role model. Forced by circumstance and his own lapse of judgement, this formerly apolitical Rastafarian trucker has become a radicalized constitutional warrior. He has dared to ask out loud, in a court of law no less, the question the estimated 80 million Americans who have tried marijuana have asked themselves in private: Why is it illegal?
With neither the money nor the justice it can buy, he has fought the law--in this case, the law that makes it a crime to pluck the leaves off a certain fragrant weed growing in the earth and smoke them for pleasure or medicinal use--and the law has called it a draw. Forchion did not pick this fight--he's sort of the stoner analogue of the drunken underclassmen at a frat party who trips and spills his beer down the blouse of the homecoming queen and gets taken outside by the jocks for a good beat-down--but he did not run from it. And before it was over, he had lost pretty much everything he ever had except his phonebook-thick stack of court transcripts, which he pores over like a biblical scholar hunched over the Dead Sea Scrolls.
His name probably doesn't ring a bell, but you may know him by his nickname: New Jersey Weedman. Or maybe by his antics: smoking a joint at the Liberty Bell, or on the floor of the New Jersey State Assembly or in the offices of Congressman Rob Andrews (D-N.J.). Or his quixotic bids for a congressional seat representing the Legalize Marijuana Party, a party of one--him. Or his well-publicized efforts to legally make his name and his web site (www.NJweedman.com) one and the same--a desperate prison-house bid to bring attention to the collateral damage of the War on Drugs.
While most people probably mistook these acts of civil disobedience for giggle-worthy outtakes from a Cheech and Chong movie when they showed up on the evening news, they were in fact all part of kamikaze legal defense strategy that was, by all conventional standards of jurisprudence, crazy--but in the end proved to be crazy like a fox.
In 1997, Ed Forchion was arrested for receiving 40 pounds of marijuana and was looking at 20 years in prison. For the next three years, serving as his own counsel, he attempted to put the marijuana laws on trial. Fearing a public debate about the fairness of these laws--and the legitimacy of the scientific evidence behind them--or maybe just tired of Forchion's media circus act, the prosecution offered him a deal that was too good to turn down: three to six months in prison and two years of parole.
If his story ended there, this article probably would not have been written. Having served 18 months in prison, Forchion is today a semi-free man. As part of his plea bargain, he has been given Intensive Supervised Parole, and if he keeps his nose clean for the next 20 months he walks away free and clear from this whole nightmare. But Forchion is appealing for a new trial, another chance to put the marijuana laws on trial by using a semi-obscure legal technique known as jury nullification, wherein the jury can agree to acquit on the grounds that the law in question is illegitimate or unfairly applied. There's just one catch: If he does get a new trial and is found guilty, Forchion could go to prison for 20 years.
(The following account of the events leading up to and resulting from Forchion's arrest are told from his perspective and backed up wherever possible by court records and newspaper accounts. Neither Forchion's court-appointed attorney, the Camden County public defender's office nor the prosecutor's office would speak on the record for this story.)
Ed Forchion has, by his own admission, done some dumb things in his life. He got busted for smoking dope while in the Army. He once lost $13,000 at the blackjack table at Trump Taj Mahal, and in a drunken stupor grabbed $6,000 worth of chips off the table and ran out the door. He got away with it until the day he got pulled over by the police and they found an unregistered double barrel shotgun and a bag of pot. But the dumbest thing he ever did was drive to Bellmawr, N.J., around Thanksgiving 1997 to pick up a FedEx package containing 40 pounds of marijuana even though he had a pretty good hunch that the cops had set a trap for him.
Forchion first tried marijuana when he was 15 years old. "I instantly enjoyed it," he says. "I instantly knew it wasn't dangerous."
By the time he was 19, he was a daily user, bogarting upwards of five joints a day. A longtime sufferer of asthma--an ailment that would one day get him thrown out of the Army--Forchion found that marijuana opened up his chest to the point that he could throw away his inhaler. In the early '90s, Forchion became a long-haul trucker, and before long bought his own $70,000 rig. During a trip to Arizona, he met up with a cousin who, in between hits off a shared joint, told him that the same marijuana that cost $1,000 a pound in New Jersey could be purchased in Phoenix for just $300. Forchion bought three pounds, buried it deep inside the load he was carrying and snuck it back to New Jersey.
Without having to resort to street dealing, he managed to get rid of most of it through friends and associates--including his brother, Russell--turning a tidy profit and holding onto enough to keep himself stoned off his tits. He returned to Arizona frequently, and eventually fell in with some Mexican drug dealers who offered him bigger and better deals. It was the Mexicans who dubbed him "New Jersey Weedman." He got an apartment in Tucson that he used as a base of operations, and five times a year he would smuggle upwards of three hundred pounds to places like Cleveland and New York as well as New Jersey, earning as much as $20,000 per run. "They offered me coke and heroin, but I always turned them down," says Forchion. "To me pot wasn't a drug, those were drugs. Besides, I am the exact opposite of a coke person, there is absolutely nothing about me that wants to go fast."
Forchion was extremely cautious on those pot runs, driving only at night when the interstates were largely free of traffic and state troopers. He invested in pricey, highly detailed maps that pinpointed where all the weigh stations and agricultural checkpoints were, and plotted out alternative routes. He estimates that these smuggling runs earned him $100,000 a year, which nearly doubled his trucker's salary. It was a fat and happy time. But one day in Texarkana, his luck nearly ran out. "I got pulled over at an inspection station and when they saw I was coming from Arizona they wanted to search the truck because that's where all the pot from Mexico comes through," says Forchion. "I remember thinking 'I'm a black man in Arkansas with 120 pounds of pot. I am going to jail.'" At the time, Forchion owned a Rottweiler named Buster. The inspector took a shine to Buster, telling Forchion he used to raise Rottweilers. Just as the inspector was opening the back doors of Forchion's rig, Buster ran off to pee and was run over by a passing truck. "I was crying, but I think the inspector was even more upset," says Forchion. "He put Buster in a bag and handed it to me and sent me on my way."
He was not quite aware of it at the time, but Ed Forchion had just cashed his last get-out-of-jail-free card. One afternoon in November 1997, Forchion noticed a van parked across the street from his house in Chislehurst, N.J. He asked all around the neighborhood and nobody knew who owned it. He set up a camcorder in his house and recorded himself walking over to the van and knocking on the tinted black windows. When he got no response, he went back to his house and retrieved a can of shaving cream, which he proceeded to smear over all the windows of the van. As he walked away, chuckling to himself, the van suddenly started up and drove away.
Not willing to let well enough alone, Forchion pursued the van in his own car, camcorder in hand. A few blocks later, he pulled up alongside the van, honking his horn and aiming the camcorder at the driver. The driver looked over, and when he recognized Forchion and saw the camcorder, he turned his head the other way, speeding off. On the tape, you can hear Forchion guffawing loudly.
As he sits contritely on the sofa of his wife's modest ranch home tucked away in the leafy hollows of Bells Mill, N.J., Forchion shakes his head and tells PW, "I guess I got a little arrogant there towards the end. Two weeks later I was arrested."
In between trucking runs, both legit and otherwise, Forchion and his brother would occasionally use FedEx to send pot from Arizona to New Jersey. They would wrap the weed in industrial shrink-wrap, cover it in Vaseline to disguise the smell, shrink-wrap it again, put it inside an airtight cooler and glue the lid shut, then double-box the cooler. Russell Forchion had a friend named Eric Poole who worked as the shipping clerk at Berg Labs in Bellmawr, and the Forchion brothers would have FedEx deliver the packages there.
Such was the case on Thanksgiving 1997 when Forchion arranged for 40 pounds of decent-grade Mexican cannabis to be sent to his brother back in New Jersey. Forchion had planned to spend the Thanksgiving holiday in Arizona with his girlfriend, but he got a call from his brother telling him that the package never showed up on Saturday as expected. FedEx told Russell that the package had missed the plane and would arrive on Monday. "Looking back now I don't know why but I decided to fly back and find out what was going on--I couldn't help myself," says Forchion. "I guess curiosity got the best of me."
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.
The officer who had just pulled Ed Forchion over was about to learn a few things about the bearded black guy with the long dreads. 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. 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.