TRENTON, N.J. — Ed Forchion sells marijuana in New Jersey’s state capital — directly across from City Hall.
He doesn’t have a license. What he’s doing is blatantly illegal. He doesn’t care who knows.
New Jersey voters are voting in next week’s general election on whether to legalize marijuana for adult recreational use. A statewide legal market could be up and running by late 2021.
But Forchion is certain there won’t be a place for him under a state-administered cannabis industry.
“Not only am I a convicted felon,” he said, “I don’t have $2 million to pony up for a permit.”
Forchion, also known as marijuana activist NJWeedman, has 16 varieties of cannabis on offer — including the high-grade Platinum Kush and Wedding Cake strains. He also sells marijuana-infused edibles and magic mushrooms.
Between masked customers, Forchion openly dared law enforcement to prosecute him. The sign on his Trenton storefront is emblazoned with an oversized image of … Forchion. It shows him obstinately smoking a giant spliff.
“Because when they arrest me, then that’s when I get what I want,” chuckled Forchion, standing behind a glass counter holding scores of edibles and oversized jars of marijuana flower. “They could stage a raid with AK-47s. But I won’t resist.”
Forchion, 56, wants his day in court so he “can put the cannabis industry’s systemic racism on trial.”
“They’ll give me a hearing, and by law, they’ll have to let me go after a couple of days,” Forchion said. “Prison doesn’t scare me. They can’t find 12 people who’d be willing to convict me.”
He figures he’s already spent 1,200 days in prison on felony distribution charges. But more recent attempts to jail him have ended in not-guilty verdicts. In a 2010 case, Forchion convinced a Burlington County jury that the state’s cannabis law was unjust.
Forchion says he’s having his “Rosa Parks moment,” referring to the Black woman who in 1955 refused to surrender her seat to a white passenger on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Ala.
“Rosa Parks refused to comply. She used civil disobedience to spark an entire movement,” Forchion said.
“I’m not getting off the canna-bus. I think what I’m doing will spark the black market to be more assertive. There should be 1,000 people like me selling weed openly in New Jersey.”
For nearly two decades, Forchion has pursued a quixotic effort to legalize marijuana in New Jersey. He’s run for Congress in Burlington County several times on the Legalize Marijuana Party ticket. He’s running this year in the 12th Congressional District, but he’s not trying very hard.
He says he “already voted no” on the measure on the Nov. 3 ballot that would add an amendment to the state’s constitution to legalize marijuana, which is expected to pass by a ratio of 2-1.
Forchion wants no part of what he derides as “corporate cannabis” and “the Walmarts of Weed.” He wants underground dealers — the men and women who already sell weed to an estimated 800,000 “traditional” customers in the state — to have a chance to cash in.
“The way the scheme is now, it’s only going to be for rich white guys,” he said. “It’s outrageous. People like me, we won the drug war. But it’s the Republicans who fought and lost, the John Boehners of the world, who now sit on the corporate boards of the big weed companies.”
Boehner, the former Ohio congressman and speaker of the U.S. House, was once adamantly anti-marijuana. He now serves on the board of Acreage Holdings, a multi-state cannabis operator that owns a cultivation facility and two dispensaries in New Jersey under the Botanist brand.
“So I tell people I’m selling weed like I’m white,” Forchion said. A legal recreational marijuana industry “will throw a couple of bones to people they call minorities. … But there will be no room for black marketeers or a felon like me.”
Behind the restaurant, under the afternoon sun and a 10-foot marijuana bush, a crowd of about 40 people puffed on bongs, passed joints, or munched on empanadas and turkey burgers from Weedman’s kitchen. A handful of dancers gamboled in the grass to the shambolic rhythms of the Juggling Suns, which had segued into Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry.”
“Weedman’s Joint is the best thing to ever happen to Trenton,” said a man in a COVID mask who identified himself as Billy Blaze, 34, a music producer. “I make beats,” he said. He flashed his “frequent buyer” card that affords him first crack at the rarer cannabis strains and discounts. “I come in about once a week.”
Blaze said prices at Weedman’s Joint undercut those at the legal medical marijuana dispensaries by 30%.
Prices are low because Weedman’s product isn’t tested for pesticides. There’s no guarantee it’s organic, no way of telling how much psychoactive THC is in each sample. And it’s certainly not taxed, “though I would gladly pay taxes,” Forchion said. “There’s no mechanism for that, though.”
Then there’s the ambiance. Weedman’s Joint is a far cry from the perfume counter experience of most legal marijuana dispensaries. It reeks of stale pot smoke. The decor is classic head shop circa 1977. Posters of Marley and Jimi Hendrix are tacked to the walls. The floors are sticky. It feels like a brightly lit dive bar, the Dirty Frank’s of marijuana.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, a Grateful Dead cover band played “Mama Tried” in the backyard of NJWeedman’s Joint. Inside, Forchion and two other men dispensed dozens of packets of Oregon- and California-grown cannabis.
Forchion, who sells marijuana three days a week, wouldn’t say how much revenue he generates.
“But it’s the hungry man that screams the loudest,” he said, referring to his cash flow. “And I’m not hungry now.”
Just behind Blaze, two women were checking out. One squealed with delight. She had just plunked down $40 for a cannabis-infused Wonda chocolate bar. When she opened it, she discovered a Golden Ticket. “I get a free one!”
For someone who styles himself an outlaw, Forchion has fans in high places. One works at City Hall across the street.
Mayor Reed Gusciora said he wasn’t aware of Forchion’s brisk illicit business in cannabis. Gusciora knows Weedman’s Joint as an affordable lunch counter catering to potheads and city workers.
“Many of his sandwiches are $4.20, if that’s any indication,” Gusciora said. “I’ve not become a customer around back.”
He knows of Forchion’s frequent brushes with the law, but marvels at the Weedman’s ability to evade prosecution.
“I think our police and state police have visited him many times,” Gusciora said. “But outside of his previous convictions, the prosecutors are zero for two. Most people here don’t believe he should go to prison.”
Gusciora has a long history with Forchion. As a state assemblyman, Gusciora co-sponsored the medical marijuana bill and later was the first to introduce an adult-use recreational bill in the statehouse. Gusciora was also an adjunct professor at the College of New Jersey, where he taught a course on the politics of marijuana.
He invited Forchion to be a guest lecturer.
Gusciora hopes Forchion will find a way to participate in the legal market. “When Ed’s not involved in challenging the law, people actually like him. He’s always treated me kindly and with mutual respect. He realizes police have their job. He likes the challenge.”
Gusciora said Forchion’s storefront across from City Hall could serve as an anchor for a business district, packed with marijuana retailers, bars and eateries. He mentions two restaurants that had opened next to Weedman’s Joint before COVID, but then shuttered due to the pandemic.
“(Legalization) is definitely shaping up to be a ‘green rush’,” Gusciora said. “If you look at other states’ experiences and the revenue that’s generated, there’s great promise that cannabis could bring jobs to the city. Already, seven entities have applied for locations in Trenton.”
“We’ve partnered with NYU to do a capstone program about how the city can develop itself into a marijuana hub in the region,” Gusciora added.
That might take a while. While the capstone program percolates, Forchion stands alone.
“You’ve got to give him credit,” Gusciora said. “Weedman’s Joint is one of the few businesses that has stayed open while the others have struggled or closed.”
Forchion said he’d welcome company on the desolate stretch of State Street.
“I wish there was a weed zone with a whole bunch of dispensaries right by me,” he said. “When I had a dispensary in L.A., the Liberty Bell Temple, I had 800 competitors before the DEA shut me down.
“My gimmick there was I was a Rasta place. We played reggae. You could smoke in our lounge There was a Thai restaurant next door. The people who come to my place left with an experience they couldn’t otherwise get.”
©2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer