Ed Forchion, aka the New Jersey Weedman, is willing to risk his freedom to put marijuana laws on trial.
And it just got worse. On Sept. 1, Forchion was arrested at a Dunkin' Donuts in Cherry Hill for possession of a quarter-ounce of pot. He couldn't make the $10,000 bail, so he sat in jail for nearly two weeks until his mother bailed him out just days before his trial was scheduled to begin. And then, at the last minute, the judge, who was fairly sympathetic to Forchion's plight, was removed from the case without explanation and replaced with another judge, who made it clear that this case had dragged on long enough.
At a Sept. 11 hearing, Forchion argued that he should be allowed to use jury nullification, and Kaigh asked to be removed from the case. Both requests were denied. "That left me without a defense and an attorney that didn't want to represent me," says Forchion. The first day of the trial, Sept. 18, Kaigh didn't even bother to show up. A court officer called his law firm and a few hours later Kami Hockfield--daughter of Kaigh's partner, fresh out of law school and having never tried a case before--showed up and announced that she would be representing Forchion. "I told the judge that this woman is not my attorney," says Forchion.
The judge summoned the defense and the prosecution into his chambers, wherein prosecutor John Wynne offered Forchion a deal: 33 months in exchange for a guilty plea. Forchion declined. After the jury was seated and Forchion made his opening arguments, one of the jurors broke down crying, saying she couldn't be responsible for sending this man to jail. "I'm thinking, 'It's working'," says Forchion.
Two days later Wynne offered another deal: six months in jail and 27 months on Intensive Supervised Parole. "I thought to myself, 'Six months? I could do that standing on my head'," says Forchion. He told the judge he would accept the plea bargain as long as he could still appeal and would be given a chance to address the jury one last time.
"I asked how many of them were feeling my argument, that marijuana should be legal, and five people raised their hands," says Forchion, who unsuccessfully tried to get out of the plea bargain agreement a week later. Sentencing was set for Dec. 1, 2000.
Two months after the trial Forchion took a bus up to Ontario, where he applied for political asylum at the Swiss, Dutch and Cuban embassies. "I wanted to force a new trial," he says. "The Swiss basically laughed at me. The Dutch were nicer about it, but they said no, too. The Cuban embassy thought about for a while. The woman there suggested that I just get on a plane and fly to Cuba, but I didn't have a passport." So he got on a bus and came home in time for his sentencing.
On Jan. 12, 2001, Forchion reported to Riverfront Prison in Camden. It took prison guards less than five minutes to find the 10 joints hidden in the sole of his shoe. On Feb. 6, Forchion received a letter from the director of the state's Intensive Supervised Parole program informing him that he was not eligible due to his extensive criminal history.
"Classic bait and switch," says Forchion. Ultimately, Forchion served 15 months before his release on April 3 of this year.
Before entering prison Forchion began preparing his appeal, a process that requires him to secure a copy of his trial transcripts. Nobody at the court reporter's office seemed to be in much of a hurry to make this happen, as it would take nearly 16 months--plus a lawsuit, a threatened hunger strike and Dr. Fenichel plunking down the $380 fee--for Forchion to get his transcripts. Oddly enough, there are key passages missing from several of the transcripts. A reconstruction hearing is set for next month where all parties involved in the proceedings will attempt to recreate the missing dialogue.
Ed Forchion is now awaiting a decision on his request for a new trial. Attorney-author Clay Conrad has agreed to advise Forchion in the event the appellate court sides with him. "I have warned him that if he takes it to a new trial and he loses, he could go to jail for a long time," says Conrad. "But I have no doubt he is up to the task--what lawyers do is not magic. He's only got one case to figure out and only one law to master and all the time in the world to figure it out."
And Forchion seems to have a kindred spirit in John Vincent Saykanic, his new court-appointed attorney. "We just want to say some of the drug laws are ridiculous," he says. "The government is wrong when it comes to the marijuana issue."
Jonathan Valania (email@example.com) last wrote at length about the life and travails of Chubby Checker.
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.
PW's Music Issue 2014