|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
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
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.