DRCNet Interview: Ed Forchion, the New Jersey Weedman 3/28/03

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Ed Forchion, also known as the New Jersey Weedman (http://www.njweedman.com), has since his marijuana trafficking arrest in New Jersey in 1997 become an outspoken and outrageous opponent of the state's and the nation's marijuana laws. Energized by his arrest, Forchion commenced a flamboyant public campaign to change the law and, hopefully, avoid being sent to prison for 20 years. Forchion ran for the US Congress and for local office, publicly smoking pot along the way. He appeared at the New Jersey state capitol attired in striped convicts' garb, and smoked there, too. At one point, he even sought political asylum in Canada -- to no avail. At all times, he generated press coverage and controversy.

Finally, Forchion pled guilty in exchange for a short prison stay, then got out on probation last year. By then adopting the NJ Weedman moniker, Forchion was in no mood to call it a day. He soon ran afoul of New Jersey probation officials for -- of all things -- expressing his opinions on public policy issues, particularly marijuana legalization. In a move that should startle the conscience of a democratic society, New Jersey authorities jailed Forchion for five months for planning to air TV commercials airing his political viewpoint. If New Jersey officials had their way, he'd still be rotting behind bars, but thanks to the intervention of a federal judge, the NJ Weedman is back from the land of the living dead and ready to tell his tales. DRCNet spoke with Forchion from his New Jersey home Thursday.

Week Online: How does it feel to be a free man again?

Ed Forchion: Well, I'm semi-free, anyway; I'm in the ISP, the Intensive Supervision Program, although the state thinks it stands for Inmate Silence Program. The federal judge who freed me ordered ISP to take me back, and while I'm still in the program, they're leaving me alone. They used to make me meet with them twice a week to give urine samples, but now they don't let me near the other participants -- they're afraid I'll contaminate them by telling them the Constitution applies even to prisoners -- and they come to my house to urine test me. I'm still waiting to get the man off my back. I'm happy to be out, of course, but still shocked that I spent five months in jail for making a commercial.

WOL: You had finished a prison sentence on a marijuana charge and were out on parole when they threw you back in jail for making TV commercials?

Forcion: Yes, I was on ISP and had been ordered not to talk to the press and not to talk about marijuana. I was in jail when they told me those conditions, and I knew it was illegal, but I was in jail and I wasn't about to say no. They wanted me to discontinue my public stance for legalization, but when I got out, the newspapers wanted to talk to me, and I talked to them. My parole officer gave me written warnings, then when I continued anyway, threw me in jail for five days in June. It was outrageous! How can you throw someone in jail for talking to the press? That condition of my parole was unconstitutional, and I told ISP that in a letter. They replied that those were the rules, and that's when I decided to challenge it as a First Amendment issue. That's when I taped those commercials to advocate a policy change on marijuana. How can you defend yourself if you don't have the right to free speech? I knew my making the commercials would be controversial, but I didn't know they'd throw me in jail for five months.

WOL: How did you get out?

Forchion: I filed a writ of habeas corpus to the federal court saying I was being punished for exercising my right to free speech, that the order that I not speak about pot was an unconstitutional condition of my confinement. (I was out on parole, but still serving my sentence, thus "confined.") In short, the federal judge agreed that I had the right to free speech. He ordered the state to show a reason why they had me in jail other than for exercising my First Amendment rights, and the state couldn't. I hadn't violated conditions of my parole, they had nothing, except that I talked about certain things to certain people. Of course, that took five months.

I had also filed suit in the New Jersey courts, but that entire process was a sham, a mockery of justice. The first time I was supposed to argue for my freedom, they just left me in jail, they forgot to bring me to court. The judges rescheduled not for the next week or two weeks, but two months later. I finally got a hearing in December, but the judges let the state filibuster all day. I never even got to state my case. It was obvious they were delaying. The judges scheduled another hearing a month later. I was still in jail -- five months -- and I hadn't even been able to make my case in court. It was done deliberately by officials of the state of New Jersey.

That's when the federal court, Judge Irenas, gave the state 21 days to show cause to keep me. They tried to argue that I didn't have free speech in ISP, but the judge ruled my imprisonment unconstitutional and ordered my release. I walked out of jail on January 24.

WOL: Now you are suing Comcast for refusing to run your ads advocating a policy change on marijuana. What is it you hope to accomplish with this lawsuit, and surely the requested $420,000 in damages is just a coincidence?

Forchion: Once the press started writing about my commercials, Comcast censored them. I had a signed agreement with them, I had put down a cash deposit, they had run my campaign commercials in 1999 and 2000, but they suddenly yanked the ads and made public statements saying I advocated drug use, saying I was advocating criminal activity. When my parole officer locked me up the next day, he used the same words Comcast used.

This is a harassment lawsuit; it's designed to get Comcast to air those commercials. I spent five months in jail for those commercials, but they still haven't been on the air. And this is important because our movement can't afford network advertising rates, but cable channel ads are affordable. Comcast is the largest cable provider in the country, and they need to learn not to censor. I would drop the lawsuit in 420 seconds if they agreed to air the commercials. The $420,000 figure was a deliberate attempt to catch the attention of the marijuana community, but it's not about the money.

WOL: How did you become a marijuana radical?

Forchion: I always thought marijuana should be legal, but like lots of people, I just sat around and smoked weed and talked about it. After I got arrested, then I went for it. I also wanted to do jury nullification. I wanted people on the jury to know who I was and how I felt, so I announced I was running for Congress against Rep. Rob Andrews and smoked a joint in his office. I did the same thing at Democratic Party headquarters here as I announced my candidacy for county freeholder. I swore I would smoke marijuana publicly at least once a month during my campaigns, which I did. I told the newspapers I would gladly plead guilty to conspiracy to grow pot if they would charge my coconspirator -- God. I smoked marijuana at the state capitol. I was arrested several times, but never prosecuted after I threatened to file a Religious Freedom Restoration Act defense.

The bigger picture was that I was getting press and getting my opinion heard. All those people in New Jersey were potential jurors, too. And it worked. People thought I was a fool, they said I was talking my way into jail, but when I finally went to trial, I told the prosecutors I only needed one juror to acquit. Then one of the jurors started crying, saying she couldn't convict me. On the third day, they offered me a deal. I went from looking at 20 years to doing six months and parole. Of course, they still screwed me. They did a bait and switch. After I was in prison for a month, I got a letter saying I was ineligible for that early release. I got a real web design ace, James Dawson, to update my website to explain the situation, I called myself a political prisoner, and I filed a motion to change my name to NJWeedman.com. People thought it was ridiculous, but the press picked up on it, people started going to the web site, and what do you know? Suddenly, two months late, ISP changes its mind and I get out on parole. I spent about a year on a 20-year charge.

WOL: You are a Rastafarian. Can you explain how that influences your views on marijuana?

Forchion: I guess I was a searcher. As a kid, I rejected Christianity and religion. For awhile I wanted to be a Muslim; I went to the temple and swore I would be the next Malcolm X. But by my 20s, I was an atheist. My army dogtags said "atheist" and my Marine dogtags said "no preference." I met some Jamaicans, I was smoking marijuana, and they said I should let Jah into my life. I started finding myself then. Rastafarianism teaches respect for nature and natural things, while Christianity teaches that marijuana is the devil's weed, a sinful thing. Rastafarianism eventually got me in trouble, because I believe smoking marijuana is a religious freedom. If we had true religious freedom, we would have an exception to the drug laws. But the authorities in New Jersey knew I was serious about this, about using the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to protect my religious practice, and they would not prosecute me. I could smoke anywhere in New Jersey and not get prosecuted. Arrested, yes, but not prosecuted.

WOL: You are a black guy from New Jersey, but black marijuana activists seem to be a rare breed. Why do you think that is?

Forchion: It is frustrating. People are afraid. The drug laws are enforced tougher and harder against our communities. The prisons are full of faces like mine. But there are only a couple of black activists -- Cliff Thornton in Connecticut, Sister Somayah in Los Angeles -- that I know of, and a couple of preachers. But groups like the NAACP and the black community groups are almost all run by the reverends and preachers, and they can't get past the idea that smoking marijuana is sinful. It's a real hindrance. I've basically stopped talking to local NAACP chapters. And the New Jersey Council of Black Ministers, they were very active on racial profiling, and that was all about finding drugs, but the ministers shied away from talking about the drug war. Until historical black organizations start taking this up, black people aren't going to be involved. I tell them, if you're complaining about a million black men in prison, then enlighten us on serving on juries. They don't want to hear it.

WOL: You are something of a free agent in terms of marijuana activism. Do you get any support from the organized drug reform movement? Why or why not?

Forchion: I think the drug reform groups think I'm too wacky, with the NJ Weedman thing. Being the Weedman is a double-edged sword. It has got me attention from the mainstream media, and I've been accepted because the reporters listen and understand that what I'm saying is not wacky. But the other side is that movement people think I'm a lunatic. When I start talking about them providing me some help, they ask why they should give money to the silly NJ Weedman.

WOL: What's next for you, and where do you think the movement should be heading?

Forchion: I'm sure not going away. I spent five months in jail for trying to express myself; I want to see those commercials aired. I'm trying to present the case for legalization, but they won't let me put it on TV. So I will continue to push my court cases and I will continue to try to get media attention. It has worked for me and for the issue so far, and if you want to get some piece of legislation passed, you've got to get on the TV. I'm also the subject of two documentaries, one by Peter Christopher, which is strictly on the First Amendment fight, and the second by an independent filmmaker that will be broader, looking at the whole NJ Weedman thing. You know, at first people think "NJ Weedman, ha-ha," people think marijuana is a funny issue, but after they hear me out, it isn't so funny anymore. And now they can't ignore me. My picture has been in the paper many times, so people recognize me at Walmart, and I'm a celebrity at local courthouses. I'm not just another one of those million black guys fighting drug charges, I'm the NJ Weedman!

I think the organizations interested in legalizing marijuana need to reach a national consensus to push civil disobedience and jury nullification. I think it's a waste of time to try to lobby Democrats and Republicans to change the law -- there may be at best a handful of sympathetic congressmen -- so it's up to we the people to change these laws. If the drug reform and marijuana legalization groups got behind jury nullification, we can change those laws. There is tremendous potential there -- just look at the Ed Rosenthal case. If a single juror there knew he could have voted his conscience, Ed would have walked free. This is a valuable option. People wouldn't convict their neighbors for beer violations during alcohol Prohibition; we can do the same thing now. Lots of people don't think people should be punished for marijuana, and jury nullification gives us the chance to exploit that. We have the power, if we just choose to exercise it, but we need to teach the people. If we can use public sentiment in this way, we can win. Juries can judge the law as well as the facts -- let's put the law on trial.

For earlier DRCNet coverage of the NJ Weedman, see:

http://www.drcnet.org/wol/245.html#njweedman
http://www.drcnet.org/wol/251.html#edforchion
http://www.drcnet.org/wol/266.html#edforchion
http://www.drcnet.org/wol/270.html#thoughtcrime

-- END --
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Issue #280, 3/28/03 The Week Online Needs Your Help | Editorial: I Smuggled Coca Soap into the United States | Road to Vienna: British Government Chides International Narcotics Control Board on Cannabis Rescheduling Critique | Will Canada Marijuana Decriminalization Be Collateral Damage in Iraq War? | Maryland Legislature Rebuffs Drug Czar, Passes Medical Marijuana Bill, Awaits Governor's Signature | DRCNet Interview: Ed Forchion, the New Jersey Weedman | Newsbrief: DEA Issues Final Hemp Rule, Would Ban Hemp Food Products in Weeks, Hempsters Fight Back | Newsbrief: Bill to Allow Syringe Purchases Moving in Illinois Legislature | Newsbrief: Bill to Restrict Needle Exchanges Gets Push in Rhode Island | Newsbrief: Colombia to Get $100 Million Bounty for Supporting Iraq War | Newsbrief: More Americans Dead in Colombia | Newsbrief: Lawsuit Charges Chicago Cops with Pattern of Illegal Stops, Searches of Minorities | Newsbrief: Bush to Nominate Woman Prosecutor to Head DEA | Newsbrief: Silence on Pusherstrasse -- Christiania Drug Sellers Strike for Future of "Free City" | Newsbrief: This Week's Corrupt Cop Story | Jobs at WOLA | The Reformer's Calendar
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