Ed Forchion — aka the NJ Weedman — has been on quite the journey in his quest for marijuana legalization. He’s done time in prison. He’s met all kinds of people from all walks of life who identify with him. And he’s successfully represented himself in Mercer County Superior Court.
Trenton resident Forchion, 54, has been running Trenton’s NJ Weedman’s Joint since 2015.
The aptly named sanctuary for weed enthusiasts to relax and eat is located right across from City Hall on East State Street.
Attached to the restaurant is the Liberty Bell Temple — a “cannabis church” where the use of marijuana was practiced as part of a religious freedom. Its name comes from the historic bell in Philadelphia and represents freedoms.
It is also the place where Forchion and 10 others were arrested in August, 2016, for charges involving outstanding warrants and marijuana.
Forchion was additionally charged with marijuana possession and distribution, distribution of drug paraphernalia, maintaining a narcotics nuisance, and creating a booby-trapped manufacturing or distribution facility.
Then in 2017 Forchion received another charge: witness tampering by social media postings regarding an alleged informer. Authorities successfully argued that Forchion’s social media postings regarding a potential informer were threats, and Forchion was placed in prison as he awaited trial. In 2018 Forchion successfully challenged the charge and was released after serving 447 days.
Even though he is now suing the police for false imprisonment and lives in limbo between his marijuana charges and state’s movement to marijuana legalization, Forchion says he loves the capital city and is determined to make a place for himself and others to enjoy recreational weed.
On a recent weekday afternoon, the lunchtime crowd has gone back to work and it’s quiet and relaxed. Forchion, accompanied by his pit bull Budz, is in the temple’s lounge watching a midday “Law & Order” marathon on the television.
Here Forchion freely talks about his own history and how irritated but resolute he feels about the new New Jersey marijuana legalization bill being crafted now.
“I was in North Jersey this morning,” he says. “This brother recognized me at a gas station. I walked in to get an Arizona iced tea, and he told me he was a supporter and that he wants to sell weed too. That’s what sparked me to start this journey back in 1997,” he says.
Various websites and news articles chronicle a series of marijuana-related brushes with the law and activism beginning in 1997 when he was arrested in Bellmawr, for intent to distribute. That resulted in a 10-year sentence in a state prison, but in 2002 he was released and entered a State Intensive Supervision Program. When he refused to comply with an order not to talk about cannabis, he was returned to prison.
Citing wrongful imprisonment and freedom of speech violations, he petitioned a federal court and was freed in 2003. He celebrated by organizing religious services using marijuana near the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. Although arrested by the federal forces guarding the federal site, he was put on probation and unsuccessfully challenged the government for violation of religious rights.
Records show several other arrests or police altercations between 2010 and 2013. That includes Forchion driving his “Weedmobile” to California to grow and sell medical marijuana in his dispensary, and experiencing a police raid that yielded no charges.
With a history of severe asthma — a condition that earned him a medical discharge from the United States Marine Corps and his introduction to marijuana as relief treatment — he now has giant cell tumors (GCT) forming in his knees. They are the result of playing high school football in South Jersey. Born in Camden to a dump truck driving/diesel mechanic father and boarding-house running mother, he was raised in Sicklerville.
After moving back to New Jersey, the divorced father of five children and sometimes political candidate eventually started spending time in Trenton and opened a business.
Now he is picking up the pieces from his most recent stint in jail.
“I’m good now. But while I was in jail they suspended my disability insurance. The only way I can get health care is through Social Security. When they threw me in jail I lost all that,” he says.
Looking at the ups and downs of fortune, he says, “I got here in April of 2015 and opened up to all this fanfare. I thought I was doing good. In LA I almost had a reality show with Discovery, and when I came here I still had that dream and tried to do it here and got interest from an NYC entity. The Wall Street Journal wrote about me opening the restaurant. Then the Trenton police came here at midnight telling me I needed to close earlier, even though nothing was happening. I was having night events, especially on Fridays and Saturdays. People would come in and buy food, which is the only thing that really makes money here.”
Forchion continues his account. “Trenton’s had a curfew of 11 p.m. since 1988, except for bars and nightclubs — businesses that have a liquor license. I was hosting comedy nights, hosting musicians, and so between Christmas and New Year’s 2015 I got a visit from a policeman telling me that City Statute 146-22 states that you can’t be open past 11 p.m. But that statute is for a residential zone, not here. This is a business zone. It doesn’t apply to me. I read it right there in front of him. They got an attitude with me. The next weekend there was a fight around the corner on Stockton Street. The fight was on WorldStar.com (a site where people log neighborhood fights). They wanted to blame that fight on me.”
Another time, he says, “The police were concerned about a shootout happening here. They told me that because I’m from Sicklerville I didn’t know how the city worked. They thought I was a country bumpkin.”
He says things got worse after he filed a harassment complaint. “Next thing I know the police are in a full-fledged campaign to close me with dozens of tickets and phony charges,” he says.
Asked about how he successfully navigates through the legal system, Forchion shares some thoughts. “The Constitution, the sixth amendment, guarantees you the right to assistance for your defense. There’s no such thing as a right to a lawyer. You also have a right to represent yourself. So the case I always mention in court is the 1974 California v. Ferretta case. Ferretta was a guy who was not allowed to represent himself and was found guilty. He took it all the way to the Supreme Court and the court said he could represent himself. But this case also says that you have the right to choose your defense. And how I want to proceed with my case. So that’s the hammer I always throw in court. New Jersey v. King says the same as the Ferretta case. They both say I can represent myself and I can choose my own defense.”
Another tool he used was jury nullification — a move by the jury to find a defendant not guilty because the jury finds the law immoral or wrongly applied.
“There are several ways to get jury nullification. Not just that the law is invalid, but also that a jury of my peers can vote and have the right to judge the law by their own conscience.”
Forchion says his knowledge of law was helped several years ago by the same system that was prosecuting him. “The public defender’s office assigned Chris Campbell, who represented me in my trial, and I also became friends with a lawyer years ago named John Saykanic who helps me with appellate issues. I met him through the publicity from my other cases. He’s my go-to phone call guy. He’ll write up all my briefs for me. He’s an appeals court lawyer. He’s helped me a lot. I have civil attorneys representing me in my federal civil rights case against the city, where the judge did a miracle thing — he allowed us to go back and amend the civil suit without wasting time.”
Speaking about marijuana laws and his recent trial, he adds, “People know the weed laws are bullshit and that these white guys are going to get rich selling it very soon, and that it’s medicine. But when somebody on the street sells you call it a Schedule 1 drug and I should go to jail for it. Even though there are people in the street that don’t understand what I’m talking about when I say jury nullification, the prosecutors and the judges know that I understand the concept that the founding fathers had and it’s that these jurors are my peers and they’re not putting me in jail.”
In a world far different from its institutional neighbors — Trenton City Hall across the street and the U.S. Federal Building a few blocks away — the Joint offers a menu with munchies named for different marijuana strains and things and people close to Forchion’s heart. There’s the Jack Herer (a barbecue chicken wrap sandwich) named for the legendary cannabis activist, and the Reggie (a veggie burger on a bun or a wrap) named for that familiar garden variety weed. Then there’s the Cheryl Miller Special Chicken Tenders named for the late New Jersey multiple sclerosis patient and cannabis advocate, and breakfast items like Snoop’s Dream, a fish and grits dish, and Freedom Leaf, a plantain, black bean, and avocado egg wrap. There are also fresh juices sold in the summer and smaller snacks on the menu.
The most outrageous menu item is the Christie Burger — a nod to former governor Chris Christie who was against ratifying the 2010 Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act. It’s a double turkey burger with mac and cheese all served inside a sliced glazed donut.
“Riverline” is the Joint’s resident cook. The nickname comes from his former commute from his hometown of Camden; his actual name is Baldwin. He is someone Forchion met in jail and wanted to help. Baldwin now lives in Trenton.
Folks visit the Joint for breakfast and lunch, yet Forchion’s bread and butter are those night events he talks about, events that Forchion can charge at the door for. The Joint hosts everything from fourth Friday open smoke parties to karaoke nights to third Friday standup comedy events; then there’s the first Thursdays open mic nights and old school hip hop nights. The first Grateful Dead tribute performance was so popular there are six more performances lined up through February every other Sunday. There is a regular ladies night too. Event announcements and invitations go out often, always via social media to reach the largest audience.
“The events make this place happen. Besides lunch, it’s about the events and the late-night food business,” Forchion says.
At the Joint there is an outdoor garden with a fire pit and heat lamps for cooler nights and even space inside for committee meetings if any group needs a conference-style room to plan out their next business moves.
Dioh Williams, a local hip-hop emcee and artist, manages the Joint and plans this whirlwind of events where the kitchen stays open, even the ones that end after midnight — the main conflict between and the Joint and the city.
Freed in May, 2018, Forchion has been picking up various pieces of his life. During his jail time visitation rights with his youngest daughter were cut off. He has filed a motion to fight that, which is still pending. His other four children are adults now, all between the ages of 20 and 24.
And he is working to rebuild the clientele and the momentum he had built for the Joint.
And while Forchion hasn’t been a cannabis distributor or seller since he left California, on his agenda is growing cannabis at home and ensuring that black and brown men — those targeted by the criminal justice system for non-violent drug offenses for selling relatively small amounts of weed — can get a seat at the table when New Jersey finally legalizes marijuana.
He is at odds with State Senator Nicholas Scutari, who is helping to create the new law and was recently filmed by the Vice TV network selling weed in front of the New Jersey State House, down the street from the Joint.
“Senator Scutari isn’t about legalization. He’s about creating these Caucasian cannabis companies. I call them ‘cannabaggers,’” he says. “The industry is looking to make New Jersey the Silicon Valley of weed. Only with white guys. You’ll need a $100,000 non-refundable deposit just to file an application and you can’t home grow. If somebody tells you, ‘You can only get tomatoes from the supermarket,’ you may just be pissed-off enough to grow tomatoes yourself just because you want to and because you can!” he says.
When he is not being an activist and proprietor, Forchion spends time with his girlfriend, Debbie, a cancer nurse, and his two dogs.
And recently he had a new mural put up outside the joint — a sign that says he is not going up in smoke.
This article was originally published in the February 2019 Trenton Downtowner.