Many people driving to New Jersey’s capital city of Trenton take Route 29 alongside the Delaware River, and pass a bridge emblazoned with the giant phrase, TRENTON MAKES— THE WORLD TAKES. Robert Edward Forchion, a.k.a. NJ Weedman, perfectly embodies that spirit of broad innovation, seamlessly carrying out the roles of activist, writer, legal expert and business owner.
Lighting up joints in public, and on the floor of the New Jersey General Assembly and in a Trenton City Council meeting, has earned him both respect and admonition from his peers. Although not formally trained in law, he’s represented himself in numerous court proceedings over the years, persuading jurors to grant favorable verdicts.
Police, prosecutors and politicians have gone to extremes in their attempts to silence the dreadlocked black cannabis reformer and entrepreneur from Camden, N.J., but Forchion, 52, has fought them back at every turn, much to their collective chagrin. The latest onslaught of bizarre law enforcement actions against him involves a SWAT Team, a confidential informant and a cop named Officer Herb Flowers (not kidding).
“They’re really going for it,” Forchion tells me, genuinely astonished and slowly shaking his head at his current situation. We’re at his sandwich shop, The Joint, on Trenton’s State Street, which is at the center of his current conflict.
Just one year ago, The Joint was packed with customers, many wearing government access badges on lanyards. It’s directly across the street from Trenton City Hall, just one block from the federal courthouse and the EPA building, and surrounded by office buildings filled with workers. In a strange juxtaposition, Forchion was serving coffee and lemonade to tables full of government employees.
The Joint was actually successful, and there was a sincere mutual affection between the owner and his patrons. On July 3, Assemblyman Reed Gusciora even presented Forchion with an official recognition certificate from the legislature, and the local press gave Forchion’s food venture glowing write-ups.
They probably didn’t notice the door that opened into the so-called “cannabis temple” in an adjacent room, where registered medical marijuana patients, religious consumers and others peacefully gathered around chessboards and lounge tables, with eclectic mural art decorating the walls. The scent of marijuana mingled with popcorn and breakfast sandwiches for nearly a year, and no one seemed to mind.
In April 2015, Forchion held a 4/20 march up the street to the Statehouse that featured hundreds of people smoking openly, and he started pushing the Trenton City Council for a decriminalization ordinance. The longtime radical appeared to be going almost mainstream.
But everything changed last February when Trenton Police told Forchion that The Joint was in a residential zone and could not serve customers after 11 p.m. And they warned him to close the temple. Believing that he was in a business zone, Forchion ignored the orders to shut down early.
On April 28, the Mercer County Narcotics Task Force and Trenton Police entered the building and seized marijuana (around 2.5 pounds), edibles (32 grams) and bongs. Forchion wasn’t there, but he was subsequently arrested on marijuana distribution charges.
In documents obtained in discovery for his trial, Forchion learned that police had sent a confidential informant to the temple to buy pot. Forchion has been honest with reporters, saying that there was a general donation jar and that marijuana “isn’t free.” Eventually he outed the informant on social media, calling him a pawn and charging the authorities with entrapment.
The Joint remained defiantly open after the raid. City officials and Trenton Police kept sending fines for serving food after 11 p.m. When cops started camping out on his corner, Forchion made a large hand-printed sign that read, WE ARE OPEN—FUCK THE POLICE.
“I was exercising free speech,” he explains. “The sign could have said, ‘We are open despite the police,’ or, ‘We are open regardless of the police,’ but I said ‘Fuck the Police’ because they’d been harassing us.”
When Officer Flowers saw the sign on May 10, Forchion says that he commanded him to “‘Shut up and stop holding the sign.’
“I know my First Amendment rights,”Forchion says. “Police officers didn’t like what I was doing, but there was nothing illegal.” The dispute between Forchion and Flowers went downhill from there. “At some point he said something I thought was derogatory—something about smoking too much. I said to him, ‘Why don’t you go out and investigate some pedophilia charges?’ Then I started calling him a pedophile,” Forchion admits. “I was trying to push him.”
An employee at The Joint shot video of the May 10 incident and immediately uploaded it on YouTube. Three days later, Forchion was arrested for cyber harassment. At his first hearing on the charges, which carry up to 18 months in prison, Forchion pleaded not guilty.
The Joint was subsequently stripped of its business license, and Forchion challenged the ruling. The Trenton City Clerk looked over some detailed zoning maps, and—in a real surprise—agreed with Forchion, and restored his license.
The very public conflict with law enforcement has driven away the life-blood of Forchion’s business, which he believes was their ultimate goal. “Some people were actually told not to come back, not to be seen here, but a few [government employees] still come in,” Forchion says.
Sharp in any debate, Forchion’s opponents often underestimate him and then suffer a stinging intellectual rebuke. His live trolling of Governor Chris Christie was epic: He followed him to radio appearances and 2013 campaign stops in his WeedMobile van, brightly airbrushed with marijuana leaves, lightheartedly shouting things over a loudspeaker.
Gov. Christie famously engaged in seemingly amicable banter with Forchion in March 2015, and even suggested: “Why don’t you go call President Obama, get his opinion? Why don’t you bring the weed truck out in front of the White House and tell me how it goes.”
The WeedMobile was seized during the raid and sat impounded under some obscure regulations, before the unmistakable vehicle was ultimately crushed into a metal cube.
Forchion has made many deep sacrifices for the cause, including giving up time with his children, and ensuring that he has decent healthcare; because he served in the Army, he relies on the Veterans Affairs hospital for his pressing medical needs.
Will advocates like Ed Forchion have a place in a regulated cannabis world? Will non-white, non-wealthy Americans have any chance to peddle legal pot? As the money from marijuana legalization starts pouring in, it’s people like Forchion who rightfully feel that some of it should come their way. For NJ Weedman to become the smiling proprietor of a completely legal joint-selling business would be a profound step forward.
Forchion, the irrepressible underdog, may be on the cusp of his biggest triumph yet: There’s a real possibility that, in the next round of court cases, he could be awarded millions of dollars in damages because of the egregious missteps of authorities.
But beyond any legal victory, Forchion is determined to see the tables at The Joint full again. “I want to get those customers back,” he says. Having witnessed his striking determination, I’m sure he will.
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