If the way New Jersey has treated marijuana activist Ed Forchion, widely known as the "New Jersey Weedman" (http://www.njweedman.com), is any indication, the state should consider changing its nickname from the "Garden State" to the "Police State." As of Thursday, the Weedman was sitting in the Burlington County Jail, charged with what can only be described as thought crime. Forchion, who had served 16 months of a 10-year sentence for marijuana trafficking, was arrested by his parole officer Monday evening and charged with violating his parole by attempting to air television commercials arguing that marijuana should be legalized.
The television commercials were never aired -- Comcast Cable first accepted them, then rejected them on the grounds that the advertising policy prohibited drugs or illegal products appearing on air. Forchion's ads, which showed him wearing a shirt with marijuana leaves and standing before an American flag, did not show actual drugs, nor did they advocate the use of illegal drugs.
So, citizen Ed Forchion is behind bars for thinking about talking about public policy issues. While New Jersey parole officials spent two days evading DRCNet phone calls about Forchion's case, they did talk to the Burlington County Times. According to regional parole director Tom Bartlett, Forchion violated parole rules by advocating marijuana use.
"He agreed he would not promote marijuana use," Bartlett told the local paper. "We tried to get him in compliance and he has not cooperated." Bartlett and other parole officials apparently cannot distinguish between advocating drug use and advocating a position on an issue of public policy and seem blithely unaware of any First Amendment considerations.
Forchion responded in a telephone interview from jail with the County Times. "This is America," he said. "I have every right to say what I want to say. They just don't want me to talk."
While it seems incredible, it may not be illegal, according to drug reformers and First Amendment experts. "Parole officers have incredible latitude," said Allen St. Pierre of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (http://www.norml.org). "We've had cases where people wanted to do community service sentences working with NORML, but the parole officers disallowed it," he told DRCNet. "But this goes beyond that. All Ed was doing was arguing that the laws should be changed. When this is settled, it will be hard to imagine that the courts will say any citizen does not have the right to advocate a policy position."
"It's pretty drastic when someone can't advocate a change in American law, but not unprecedented," said Ken Paulson, executive director of the First Amendment Center (http://www.freedomforum.org/first/). The classic example is the guy whose parole was revoked for recording a rap song about killing police officers." The jailing marked the second time this summer that Forchion has been hauled away in handcuffs for activities usually considered commonplace. In June, he was jailed for four days for talking to reporters outside the Burlington County Courthouse about a lawsuit he had filed against the county and his ex-wife in a child visitation dispute (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/245.html#njweedman).
Forchion gained notoriety as an aggressive advocate for marijuana legalization after he was arrested on marijuana distribution charges in 1997. He has since gotten under the skin of state officials by, among other things, attempting to use a jury nullification defense, smoking marijuana in courtrooms and the State Assembly, running for state and national office on the one-man Legalize Marijuana Party ticket and seeking political asylum from his marijuana charges in Canada.
After his release from prison this spring, Forchion went right back at it, filing a $5 million lawsuit alleging that Burlington County courts and his ex-wife conspired to deprive him of visitation rights to their daughter because of his views on marijuana and his religion -- he is a practicing Rastafarian. It was his attempts to talk about that lawsuit that got him thrown in jail in June. Forchion is also appealing his marijuana trafficking sentence, even though he risks ending up with the 20-year maximum if he loses.
NORML's St. Pierre implicitly acknowledged that Forchion's tactics left him largely isolated from more mainstream drug reformers and that Forchion didn't have much nice to say about such groups, but then added that Forchion was a true fighter for the cause. "If we had a thousand Ed Forchions, the law would have been changed long ago," said St. Pierre.
Peter Christopher, whose Next Play Video (http://www.nextplayvideo.com) produced Forchion's unaired commercials had an entirely appropriate reaction to the censorship of Forchion's ads and his subsequent arrest.
In an interview with Preston Peet's Drug War news service (http://www.drugwar.com/pweedmanarrested.shtm), Christopher said, "I'm so fucking mad I could spit." And New Jersey is so mad at Ed Forchion that it spits on the Constitution.