Through the metal detectors, past the indoor basketball court dotted with men in orange, and into a small, whitewashed room with six telephones, New Jersey’s resident marijuana activist sat behind a window. He sat at the fourth phone, his face framed by a thick border of blue paint around the polycarbonate glass, chipped in some areas. His dreadlocks were tied back and his calm, gray-colored eyes were underlined by dark bags. He was tired.
There is an irony unraveling inside this New Jersey jail. With the election of Gov. Phil Murphy, who campaigned on legalizing marijuana, the state is closer than it has ever been to seeing the drug become permitted. But at a time when activists are rejoicing the plant’s acceptance in the Garden State, New Jersey’s most ardent pot advocate is behind bars.
Edward Forchion, known ubiquitously as NJ Weedman, has been locked up at the Mercer County Correctional Center for more than a year with no conviction—and he could be in jail when his decades-long dream of legalization finally becomes a reality.
The man who spent most of his adult life advocating marijuana reform is now fighting bail reform.
In January 2017, New Jersey enacted the Criminal Justice Reform Act, referred to as the bail reform act, after the measure was successfully passed by New Jersey voters by a ballot question three years earlier. The law made the state’s bail system dependent on risk as opposed to money.
Since its passage, the courts are now using a computer-based pretrial risk assessment tool, created by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, that considers a defendant’s criminal history to determine the risk of three components: failure to appear in court, new criminal activity and new violent criminal activity. With the bail reform also came a set of new standards. Defendants must have their first court appearance within 48 hours of an arrest, prosecutors have 90 days to indict a defendant, and, if indicted, a trial must be scheduled within 180 days.
The idea behind the state’s bail reform was to help low-risk, nonviolent defendants in jail simply because they could not afford to post bail. In many instances, the concept worked.
The New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, which played an important role in creating the bail reform act, said that within nine months of the law being enacted, the state’s pretrial jail population decreased by 15 percent. But changing the bail system created some obvious opposition. In September 2017, an insurance company with ties to the bail bond industry unsuccessfully petitioned a federal court for an injunction to stop the bail reform act.
Alexander Shalom, a staff attorney with the ACLU-NJ who was a member of New Jersey’s Joint Committee on Criminal Justice, the taskforce created to address the state’s bail system, applauded the federal judge’s ruling and said: “No system of pretrial release and detention, including this one, is perfect, but the last thing we need is to heed the bail industry’s desperate call to increase reliance on money bail.”
Despite the risk assessment algorithm, the decision to release a defendant on bail ultimately comes down to the judge.
Previously in New Jersey, bail was typically only denied for those charged with capital offenses. Under the bail reform act, even for crimes considered nonviolent, a judge may still institute a cash bail when no other release conditions could ensure public safety or the defendant’s appearance in court. In the most extreme cases, a judge can order a defendant to be held without bail pending trial, usually if prosecutors argue that the defendant is a danger to the community.
Forchion, who is facing a third-degree witness tampering charge and has never been convicted of a violent crime, is considered by the court to be one of those cases. His charge stems from posting the identity of a police informant online.
The pretrial risk assessment algorithm recommended Forchion’s release with the condition of weekly reporting to the court. Prosecutors, however, argued that if Forchion were released, he would pose a danger to the community and may obstruct the criminal justice process. They argued that despite the risk assessment’s recommendation of release, Forchion should be held in jail without bail awaiting his trial, and the judge agreed. That was March 7, 2017.
“For 230 years, we’ve had the right to bail in this country,” Forchion said in one of many phone interviews from jail. “Now, New Jersey passed this bail reform act and now things like this can happen.”
Before Forchion ended up in jail, he owned and operated a restaurant and a “cannabis temple” in New Jersey’s capital city, Trenton.
Like many other cities that relied heavily on manufacturing in the 19th and 20th centuries, Trenton saw an economic downturn before the turn of the millennia, financially depressing the city whose slogan is still “Trenton Makes and the World Takes.” The once-thriving city is now littered with boarded-up windows and dilapidated street corners. In a city where news coverage has been dominated by crime and violence, Forchion’s restaurant and sanctuary stood out as a positive addition to the community, and it was less than a mile away from the New Jersey Statehouse.
In 2015, the Wall Street Journal profiled the restaurant and noted that Forchion’s business received an honorary proclamation from the New Jersey Legislature commending the establishment and welcoming it to Trenton’s business community.
The restaurant, NJ Weedman’s Joint, served health-conscious dishes with a soul food twist, and although the food did not contain marijuana, the names of the menu items did. A meatball sandwich was dubbed the “Meatball Joint” and a vegetarian wrap the “Reggie Special.” The eatery garnered a loyal following and, before its untimely closure, boasted 4.8 stars out of 5 on Google reviews.
Attached to the restaurant but operating as a separate entity was Forchion’s cannabis church, the Liberty Bell Temple, which he referred to as a sanctuary and allowed people to come and take part in its sacrament: marijuana. The temple, Forchion said, was a place for the people of Trenton to gather and express themselves through music, dance and art. Some people have referred to the temple as Rastafarian-like, but Forchion, who has identified as a Rastafarian in the past, has never given it a specific label because he wanted it to be inclusive of all backgrounds and beliefs.
“I call it a cannabis temple or a spiritual temple,” Forchion explained. The restaurant and cannabis temple, situated side-by-side, were located directly across from Trenton City Hall. “I was making a statement when I moved there,” Forchion said.
Forchion, who is 53, opened the restaurant and temple in June 2015 with his business partner and girlfriend, Debi Madaio. Shortly after its opening, he retrofitted the buildings with 28 cameras and began filming a reality television show.
According to an article in the Trentonian, Forchion, Madaio and two silent partners created a media company called NJ Joint Ventures with the hopes of producing a television show to pitch to various networks. Their goal was to showcase marijuana activism and the lives of medical marijuana patients.
Before long, though, Trenton police officers began coming to the restaurant and temple claiming that Forchion was unlawfully operating a business past the permitted hours of operation in a residential zone.
“Everything was going fine for about six months,” Forchion said. “Then the police started harassing me for being opened late at night—for being opened past 11 o’clock.”
By the end of December 2015, police were a regular occurrence at NJ Weedman’s Joint and Liberty Bell Temple. Forchion wrote a letter in February 2016 to the mayor of Trenton and the city police informing them that his establishment was in a business zone, not a residential zone. “It was bad for business,” he said. “I had cops who kept showing up at my door.”
Towards the end of February 2016, police came to the restaurant with canines and, according to Forchion, told everyone that they had to leave because it was past 11 p.m. In the beginning of March, Forchion said he was approached by a police officer and again instructed to close his restaurant at 11 p.m. When Forchion didn’t comply, more than a dozen police officers showed up at his establishment a few days later demanding his patrons leave.
The incident, which took place on March 5, 2016, was captured on video and uploaded to the restaurant’s YouTube channel five days later. In the video, there are more than a dozen police officers crowding around the restaurant’s front door. Police lights turned the night-time streets blue and red.
“I didn’t want it to turn into a massive arrest, so I wound up telling everyone to leave,” Forchion said. “And that was the first time I’ve capitulated, telling everyone to leave, and I’ve never capitulated about nothing, but I knew I was right and that I could be open past 11.”
It was at this point that NJ Weedman decided to file a lawsuit against the Trenton Police Department.
On March 8, 2016 Forchion filed a civil lawsuit in federal court against Trenton and its police department, claiming his religious rights were violated when the police shut his business down after 11 p.m. For the next six months from March 2016 to September 2016, Forchion received 22 municipal violations from Trenton police for business-related infractions—more than half of the tickets alleging he was opened too late.
“OK fine, I’m a pain in the butt,” Forchion said. “I’ve made myself an activist, a protester, whatever you want to say, but at what point are the police allowed act like a gang?” The police presence began to scare his customers away. “It was a constant. Every couple of weeks they would do it.”
Eventually, in April 2016, Forchion’s restaurant and temple were raided by Trenton police armed with assault rifles and tactical gear. He was one of 10 people arrested from the bust and is facing 11 marijuana-related charges. Since the arrest occurred before the bail reform act was enacted in 2017, he was able to post bail and was released.
“I was not selling weed,” Forchion said, “but OK, I have weed. Who doesn’t know that NJ Weedman has weed?” It’s been two years since his arrest and he has not yet been given a trial date for his marijuana-related charges. Forchion’s third-degree witness tampering charge that he is currently in jail for stemmed from the drug bust.
The police used a confidential informant to build a case against Forchion, and Forchion, mostly through social media, revealed the identity of the informant. He claimed it was within his constitutional right to gather information for his legal defense, and said anything he posted online is protected by the First Amendment. A conviction of third-degree witness tampering carries a penalty of three to five years in prison.
Originally, Forchion was charged with second-degree witness tampering in addition to the third-degree charge, but in November 2017, a jury found him not guilty of the second-degree charge. One juror, however, remained undecided on the third-degree charge. Prosecutors decided to retry him on the third-degree charge, and he has been in the Mercer County Correctional Center since.
According to the affidavit for the search warrant before the raid on NJ Weedman’s Joint, the police “initiated a narcotics investigation” on March 10—two days after Forchion filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the city and its police department. “Their investigation was retaliation,” he said. “That’s all it was; retaliation for filing a lawsuit.”
The affidavit also showed that the police used a confidential informant in building its case against Forchion.
After finding out that a confidential informant was used, Forchion immediately had an idea of who the police had sent in. A man that Forchion had never met began to visit his restaurant and temple on a regular basis.
“He kept coming in and asking me for weed,” Forchion said, adding that it is not completely unusual for a random person to try to befriend him. “I’ve had this happen where people want to smoke with me, they want to hang out with me, strangers come and visit me,” he said. “Anywhere I go potheads know me all over the place.”
Each time Forchion declined to sell him marijuana, the informant would persist, Forchion said. That’s when he remembers the situation becoming a little “weird.”
“In fact, I was joking with my staff and I was calling him Barney Rubble because he kind of looked like him,” Forchion recalled. “He was following me around like a puppy dog like Barney Rubble does to Fred Flintstone.”
On one occasion, though, Forchion said he gave the informant some marijuana from his personal stash and “he left with some.” It was after the informant dropped $300 into a donation jar that he left at his temple, Forchion said. “We didn’t think he was undercover or anything like that,” he said. “We just thought he was a weirdo.” It was less than an ounce, according to Forchion. This led to his arrest in the drug bust on April 27, 2016.
It wouldn’t be for another year, however, that Forchion was charged with witness tampering.
“In April 2016, a month after I filed the lawsuit against the police for harassing me, they raided me based on the rat,” he said. “And then a year goes by and in March 2017 I’m arrested for witness tampering.”
Forchion has largely represented himself during much of his history in court. For his drug case, though, he had the help of an attorney. His goal was to get the government’s informant to testify in court in his drug-related case and he believed he could accomplish this by revealing the identity of the “rat,” which is Forchion’s choice noun for confidential informant.
“I started doing research—which is perfectly within my Sixth Amendment right to prepare a defense—to figure out who it was,” Forchion said. “I figured out who it was and I started blasting all of Facebook saying that there was a rat.”
This plan backfired and Forchion found himself charged with the two counts of witness tampering.
The idea of ousting the confidential informant was inspired by a Supreme Court of New Jersey case from 1976, titled State v. Milligan. The case considers the limits of the government’s privilege to protect the identity of police informants.
In November of 1972, an undercover New Jersey State Trooper named Harry Roberson was involved in a Camden County narcotics investigation. Roberson was introduced to the suspected heroin dealer, Preston Milligan, through an informant, according to court documents. Milligan, according to the court’s opinion, informed the undercover cop that he had “good stuff” for sale at $8 per bag, and Roberson agreed to buy $88 worth.
Although the informant was present during the meeting, he did not negotiate the sale and was in the bathroom when the transaction took place. Six months later, Milligan was arrested for selling heroin. Before the case went to trial, Milligan requested through the lower court that the name of the informant be disclosed. Roberson testified during a hearing on the matter and the trial judge subsequently denied Milligan’s motion.
Not long after, Milligan was convicted of possession and distribution of heroin but appealed his case. The appellate court said that since the informant acted as a material of the crime, the state didn’t have much of a case without him. The court reversed Milligan’s convictions, therefore taking the case to the Supreme Court of New Jersey, which weighed the informant’s role in Milligan’s conviction.
“A consideration of the nature of the defense and of the informer’s role in the crime here alleged leads me to believe this is a proper case for either disclosure to the defendant of the informer’s identity or for an in-camera examination of the informer by the judge, alone, to investigate the possible helpfulness of the informer to defendant if called as a witness,” the Supreme Court panel wrote in its opinion.
Regardless of the case’s nature, the Supreme Court recognized the dilemma of setting a precedent where the identities of informants were allowed to be made known during the course of the trial.
“The dilemma is that ordinarily a defendant cannot know unless the informer is made available, while to require him to be made available will end the prosecution and deny society the services of informers,” the court wrote. “The defendant swore, in defense, that he had never encountered Trooper Roberson prior to the trial, or sold narcotics to him or to anyone on the date alleged by the State.”
The informant was Milligan’s “one material witness” and had “helped to set up the criminal occurrence and had played a prominent part in it.” Disclosure of the identity of the informer “is essential to assure a fair determination of the issues,” the court wrote.
“Perhaps a situation may arise in which some such procedure would be feasible and warranted,” the judges wrote. “At the moment a choice seems unavoidable between a disclosure of the witness-informer in all cases or in none at all. A policy-decision must be made and it must rest upon probabilities. In those terms the risk of loss to defendants is pure conjecture, while the loss to society in its efforts to cope with crime would be real and substantial.”
The balance was struck “in favor of law and order.” The Supreme Court reversed the appellate court’s judgment vacating Milligan’s convictions and agreed with the trial court, which found him guilty of the crime.
The affidavit for the search warrant of NJ Weedman’s Joint alleged that the informant had directly bought marijuana from Forchion. With the 1976 case in mind, Forchion began working to reveal the identity of the police’s informant, but instead of doing so through the courts, he took to the internet.
On his website, Forchion made many postings publishing the informant’s name. He posted photos of the informant, a home address, a phone number, his wife’s name and the number of children he had. Forchion argued that if an informant could make allegations against him, he should be able to use the power of subpoena to get the informant to testify in his drug case.
In August 2016, prosecutors filed a motion for a protective order of the identity of the confidential informant. The motion to keep the informant’s identity private wasn’t approved until February 2017, according to an article on NJ.com. By this time, Forchion had already posted the identity online of who he believed was the informant. He was then charged with witness tampering and was arrested after a SWAT team entered his girlfriend’s home in March 2017.
The court found that Forchion should be detained before his trial on his witness tampering charge because “no amount of monetary bail, non-monetary conditions, or combination of monetary bail and conditions would reasonably assure” the protection of the community. It was also determined, according to court documents, that if he were released, there would be no assurance the “defendant will not obstruct or attempt to obstruct the criminal justice process,” according to court documents. Prosecutors did not comment for this story, but did provide copies of court orders regarding pretrial detention motions.
Although Forchion represents himself for the lion’s share of his legal troubles, he does have a standby counsel for his witness tampering case.
Christopher Campbell, Forchion’s standby, said that he believes the state’s case for the third-degree witness tampering charge isn’t strong since the second-degree charge was already dismissed.
“I really can’t speak for them as to whether they’re trying to punish him or not,” he said of the prosecutor’s office, “but he does make himself a very vocal advocate against the system. Whether that means he’s a target for that reason, who knows.”
The bail reform can complicate pretrial hearings, as Forchion’s standby counsel pointed out. “I have seen some surprising things happen with bail reform since its inception,” Campbell said. “Ed just wants to go to trial, but anytime he tries to do anything he gets excludable time.”
One of the biggest arguments Forchion has against the bail reform act is the tenet of excludable time. It is what has caused him to remain in jail for more than a year pending his trial. Under the bail reform act, there is a wide variety of reasons a defendant may receive excludable time against his trial clock. The bail reform act makes clear that prosecutors must bring a defendant to trial within 180 days of indictment and within 120 days for a retrial. Certain events, however, can augment these deadlines and put a pause on the trial clock.
There are 13 instances when excludable time can be applied, according to a bail reform factsheet on the New Jersey’s judiciary website, and perhaps the most encompassing of all is the time it takes a judge to decide pretrial motions. For any motion a defendant or prosecutor submits before trial, a judge has up to 60 days to respond, and however many days it takes for a response to be rendered is considered excludable time.
“For filing a motion asking for something, you get punished. To appeal something, you get punished. It’s all a part of the law,” Forchion said. “This is the dungeon system.”
On Nov. 17, 2017, shortly after Forchion’s second-degree witness tampering charge was dismissed, he filed a motion for his release. Prosecutors filed its response to the motion on Dec. 11, 2017. On Jan. 12, 2018, the judge made his decision, denying Forchion’s release and ordering 57 days of excludable time to count against his trial clock.
On March 1, prosecutors asked for more than 20 days of excludable time because Forchion filed an appeal on a judge’s order denying his release, which the judge made on Jan. 12. Jan. 20, Forchion appealed this decision to the appellate court. He also filed an appeal to the Supreme Court on Feb. 26, but the petition was denied.
Forchion was also given 67 days of excludable before he went on trial in November 2017 where he beat the second-degree witness tampering charge.
“It’s like I wasn’t here, like it didn’t count, like it doesn’t count, but I’m locked in a cage,” he said. “It counts to me. Every minute of the day counts for me.”
The bail reform can hold defendants with no bail for months on end, sometimes the cases result in acquittals. In December 2017, the Asbury Park Press reported that two men were detained with no bail under New Jersey’s bail reform act and were eventually acquitted of their charges. Both men were accused of binding, raping and robbing a prostitute at a hotel a year earlier. One of the men, who had claimed he was never at the crime scene, was in jail for almost 11 months before his acquittal, the report said.
In other instances, the bail reform act can release someone that draws the ire of the public. For example, in March a school bus driver who is currently accused of molesting at least nine children over the course of his 40-year career as a bus driver was released under the bail reform act. The story was shared on anti-bail reform websites across the country.
New Jersey’s Public Defender, Joseph Krakora, played a role in shaping bail reform. He, like Alexander Shalom of the ACLU, served on the Joint Committee of Criminal Justice. According to his biography on the state’s website, Krakora “assumed a leadership role in N.J.’s recently enacted criminal justice reform that eliminated its discriminatory money based system of pretrial release.”
Forchion questioned this connection and said that the public defender’s office and the ACLU would have been the two entities most likely to challenge the bail reform and its concept of pretrial detention with no bail, but since the two entities played a role in creating the bail reform, it makes it difficult for them to critique it.
Forchion said that the use of denying bail is essentially punishing people before a crime is even committed. He compares his situation to the “Minority Report,” a film starring Tom Cruise based on the science fiction novel by Philip K. Dick that takes place in Washington D.C. in the year 2054. The police have a “pre-crime” unit that uses a bizarre, anthropomorphic technology to see into the future, and a cop, played by Cruise, winds up being wanted for a murder he has yet to commit.
“They’re punishing me before I do crime,” Forchion said. “They’re punishing me for obstruction of justice saying they’re holding me because I will obstruct justice. Listen, if I obstruct then charge me and that’s a new charge, but how are they going to hold me in jail saying I will? That’s like locking someone up because they will commit murder one day or they will rob somebody someday.”
Forchion often finds himself comparing his trials and tribulations to movies or to his idols, which happen to be mostly Colonial era political dissidents.
“I talk about William Penn a lot,” Forchion said. “Right now, I’m talking about Peter Zenger a lot because he was put in jail for publishing and that’s what I was put in jail for.”
Zenger, who printed The New York Journal, was famously accused of libeling the governor of New York’s son, but when placed before a jury on trial, he was acquitted. Forchion, he’s quick to note while speaking of Zenger, has also been acquitted by a jury in the past. He relates to Penn because Penn, a Quaker, was ostracized and repeatedly jailed for his religious beliefs. Penn, in founding Pennsylvania, later drafted a charter of liberties guaranteeing a right to a fair trial by jury, freedom from unjust imprisonment and free elections.
John Vincent Saykanic, the attorney who has been assisting Forchion with his appeals for more than a decade, said that he “has been trying to get him out for a year from pretrial detention.”
He said that the bail reform act does away with a “defendant’s rights to appeal because by appealing you’re adding more time to your pretrial detention. Saykanic made it clear that Forchion “wants to go to trial ASAP. As soon as possible.”
Saykanic referred to Forchion’s pretrial detention as “punishment” and said that his case is an example of how the bail reform can be a “nightmare.”
“This is an example of a huge flaw in the purpose of the bail reform, which is supposed to help people who don’t have money to post bail, but here it’s punishing an individual,” he said. “He’s been there over a year now.”
He called Forchion’s situation “a grave injustice.”
Wins and Woes
When it came to his restaurant’s hours of operation, Forchion consistently argued that he was allowed to operate after 11 p.m. because his restaurant and temple are located in a business zone that permits being opened until 2 a.m.
He has so far has not been found guilty of any of the city violation tickets for hours of operation, and said that every time the municipal court date approached, the “city always postponed.” He said that he has been taken to Trenton Municipal Court on two occasions from his cell at Mercer County Correctional Center, but both times the city postponed the hearings.
Eventually, in September 2016, the city revoked Forchion’s restaurant license due to the litany of municipal tickets he received, forcing him to shut down. One week later, The Trentonian reported that Forchion’s license was reinstated because his restaurant, after all, was located in a business zone.
Forchion’s fusillade of municipal tickets were dismissed in February 2018. After two years had gone by since he was given his first ticket, a Trenton Municipal Court judge dismissed 13 of 23 tickets. The 13 tickets dismissed were all written for violations of hours of operations; the remaining 10 tickets were for other violations related to his business, Forchion said, such as having a lock on a fence and leaving a fire pit’s cover off.
He said the other 10 tickets would have never been given to him had the police recognized his business was permitted to stay open past 11 p.m. because they only showed up at his restaurant to order him to close shop. The other tickets were only auxiliary to the hours of operation violations, he claimed.
Likewise, Forchion said, he would have never filed his federal civil rights lawsuit if the police had not been coming to his restaurant and temple forcing him to close his businesses early. The federal lawsuit, he claims, led to his drug bust and witness tampering case.
Mario Williams, an Atlanta, Georgia attorney specializing in civil rights issues, police misconduct and business litigation, is representing Forchion in his federal lawsuit against Trenton and its police department.
“This is like the true definition of political prisoner,” Williams said of Forchion. “He just rubbed law enforcement the wrong day and they essentially said we’re going to shut you down, and that’s what they did.” He said Forchion was penalized for exercising his rights.
“They penalized him more so because he’s very active when exercising his First Amendment rights and freedom of speech against law enforcement officers,” Williams said.
As for the bail reform, Williams said that it “needs to be scrapped.”
Eventually, New Jersey’s bail reform act was slightly tweaked. On May 1, 2018, the Supreme Court of New Jersey ruled unanimously that in most instances a judge cannot rule defendants be detained pretrial solely based on the crime they are accused of committing. “A recommendation against a defendant’s pretrial release that is based only on the type of offense charged cannot justify detention by itself,” Chief Justice Stuart Rabner wrote in the decision. Charges such as murder, sex trafficking and other crimes that carry a sentence of life imprisonment can be the exception to this.
Third-degree witness tampering, the charge Forchion is facing, is not a crime that carries a sentence of life in prison. When the Supreme Court’s ruling came out, Forchion was detained for 421 days pretrial without bail.
In addition to Forchion, Williams is also representing a woman named June Rodgers who is suing New Jersey and former Gov. Chris Christie in an attack on the bail reform system. Her son, Christian, was killed after a man shot him dead in the streets. The man who allegedly murdered him, Jules Black, was released under the bail reform system just days before her son Christian was killed.
“Between that case and Forchion’s, you can see some serious flaws in the system,” Williams said. He questioned the computer risk algorithm designed by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation and its effectiveness. Williams isn’t the only one to have raised concerns over algorithms used to predict risk in defendants.
Aaron Clauset, a prominent computer scientist, made remarks in response to a study on machine learning applied in the realm of criminal justice. In 2016, Clauset was awarded the Erdős-Rényi Prize, given by the Network Science Society for achievements and outstanding contributions network science. The study Clauset responded to was published in justice published in Science Advances in January 2018.
“In the United States, algorithms are commonly used to predict the likelihood that a criminal will commit a crime, and these predictions influence pretrial, parole, and sentencing decisions,” he wrote. “Commercial software, such as the widely used COMPAS’s impressive-sounding 137-feature black box is nearly equivalent to a trivial linear classifier using two features, and both approaches are no more accurate or fair than predications made by people with little or no criminal justice expertise.”
Williams said that he is hoping New Jersey’s bail reform is fixed before other states adopt similar measures. According to Williams, other states are looking at New Jersey as a model.
States looking to amend bail systems stretch further across the country than just the east coast.
In January 2018, WNYC aired a program dubbed, “What Can New York Learn from New Jersey’s Bail Reform?” It mentions that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo was championing a bail reform for the Empire State.
In 2016, voters in New Mexico chose to change the way bail is used in the state. The new method is similar to New Jersey’s and makes it more difficult for judges to hold a defendant in jail under monetary bail. Utah is also working to implement changes to its bail system.
In late April of 2018, New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez recorded a video warning Utah officials that changes to the bail system could result in risk to the public. Courts in New Mexico began using the same risk assessment algorithm utilized in New Jersey designed by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. Martinez, in the video, said the results of the algorithm have been “devastating” in New Mexico.
“The whole country is looking at New Jersey and seeing how this really works or doesn’t work,” Williams said. “Everyone is looking to pass some type of bail reform on some level.”
Since the hours of operation tickets were dismissed, Forchion said he floated the idea of filing a writ of habeas corpus in his federal case.
“I want the judge to rule that my imprisonment is unconstitutional,” he said.
The Weedman has successfully argued on similar grounds before.
Forchion lived in California from 2007 to 2013, but was still coming back to New Jersey frequently. “I was bi-coastal,” he said. “That’s what I was calling myself back then.”
In California, in a case reminiscent of his current situation, he opened the first Liberty Bell Temple, which, like the one in Trenton, used marijuana as a sacrament with its congregants. It was incorporated as a 501(c)(3) religious organization, and the Trenton temple was incorporated as a subsidiary of the California incorporation. Unlike Trenton, however, Forchion was also growing weed at a warehouse in California. “They said I was violating the city dispensary laws,” he said. “My argument was that I was not a dispensary.”
His temple, located in Hollywood, was raided on a Los Angeles city code violation for failing to cease operations. The police said he was acting as a dispensary, but Forchion maintained it was a religious practice.
“For about a year we fought back and forth,” he said. Eventually, a California Superior Court judge ruled in Forchion’s favor. “He looked at my paperwork, saw that I had registered as a church, that I was incorporated as a church,” Forchion said. “I argued that I should be exempt from these marijuana laws, and I won.”
The California case, the current witness tampering case and the restaurant drug bust are far from NJ Weedman’s only legal troubles. This isn’t the first time Forchion has fought the law, and it likely won’t be the last. He has been in court many times and his wrists are no stranger to handcuffs. Nearly every run-in Forchion has had with the legal system involved—as one could imagine—marijuana.
“I’ve only been arrested for marijuana and one time I got charged with receiving stolen property because somebody sold me something and I didn’t know they had reported it stolen as part of an insurance scam,” he said. “It was a gun.”
This was Forchion’s first foray in what would become his long relationship with the criminal justice system. It was in 1996, he had just gotten out of the Army and had no criminal record.
“That was my first charge ever,” he said. “I was three years out of the Army.” He was given pre-trial intervention.
According to an article in Philadelphia Weekly, Forchion was busted for smoking marijuana while in the Army and ran off with $6,000 worth of poker chips from the Trump Taj Mahal after getting drunk and losing $13,000 at the blackjack table. He got away with it, too, according to the article, until he was pulled over by police and was found with an “unregistered double barrel shotgun and a bag of pot.”
“I was down there, I was just drunk gambling,” he said. “At some point, I lost a bunch of money, I was drunk and I reached over and I grabbed a bunch of chips. I turned around and walked out.” Forchion, who said he hardly ever has a drink anymore, had a warrant put out for his arrest. charged with theft by unlawful taking. He received pretrial intervention for the casino charge, but when he was pulled over for his warrant, police had found a gun in his truck.
“It was a little .410 shotgun,” he said. “It was double barrel, like a little tiny Derringer.”
A year after his gun case, Forchion was busted for acting as a middle man for a shipment of marijuana from Arizona. He, along with two other men, were found with more than 40 pounds of weed in Bellmawr, New Jersey.
“I got caught with 40 pounds, I represented myself,” he said. During the trial, the prosecution offered him a deal he couldn’t resist: 10 years in prison with parole eligibility after less than two years served.
He took the plea bargain and pleaded guilty to manufacturing or distribution of a controlled dangerous substance and conspiracy in Camden County in 2000. He represented himself on the marijuana charge and went from facing 20 years in prison to ultimately serving 18 months from 2001 to 2002.
“That was the only time I’ve ever went to prison. I’ve been on the cause ever since,” he said. “From that moment on, I told myself I would never, ever take a deal again. And I haven’t.”
In 2001, in a separate case that took place while Forchion was imprisoned in New Jersey, he went on trial in Pennsylvania for getting caught with a little more than a pound marijuana in Philadelphia. “I represented myself then, too,” he said. “The case got dismissed.” In 2002, though, Forchion found himself locked up again—this time his punishment stemmed from making videos.
When Forchion was released from prison after taking the plea bargain, he was put into Intensive Supervision Program, or ISP, which is a strict parole program providing alternative forms of community-based correctional supervision that allows some offenders to serve sentences outside the traditional prison settings.
He said his ISP parole officer was a “Bible thumper” and didn’t like that Forchion advocated marijuana legalization. “He really despised me, he didn’t like me. He acted like I was the anti-Christ because I advocated what he called drugs,” he said. “To me, I was talking about changing the law.”
While in ISP, Forchion made three commercials advocating the legalization of marijuana. The videos, still online, show a younger Forchion with shorter dreadlocks standing in front of large American flag.
“Have you heard our government’s claim that marijuana is dangerous, addictive, and has no medical value?” he said in one of the commercials, waving his finger at the camera. “I have! But I also know the scientific facts. Marijuana has never killed anyone, is beneficial to many, and has been used as a medicine for thousands of years.”
The theme for the commercials are all very similar: legalize marijuana and end the War on Drugs. Shortly after making the videos, Forchion was arrested for “advocating criminal activity,” he said. “There’s not even a law that says that, but I got locked up on that,” he said. “Just like I am now, it’s totally a bullshit arrest—but I got locked up.”
He served nearly five months in jail before a federal judge ruled for his release and said the commercials he made were within his First Amendment right. To get the federal judge to look at his case, though, Forchion first had to file a writ of habeas corpus, which ended up in the hands of U.S. District Judge Joseph Irenas.
“Federal Judge Irenas interceded, it was unheard of for a federal judge to intercede into a state case while the state case is still going,” he said. “But the judge, he’d been reading about it in the paper, not only did I file a habeas corpus, but I had my wife at the time mail him a copy of the videos so he could see a copy of the videos I was locked up for making.”
A federal judge must wait until a state inmate has exhausted all state claims before the defendant can move to appeal to federal court, but in Forchion’s case, an exception was made.
“The judge made an extraordinary go-around, and he interceded. It made newspapers, it made articles, it made law journals all across the country,” Forchion said. “He interceded in my case and ordered the court to release me. And I won my writ of habeas corpus.”
Forchion accomplished this all while representing himself, he said, adding that eventually the ACLU offered him assistance. The Irenas case is when John Vincent Saykanic, the attorney assisting Forchion in appeals with his witness tampering case, began helping Forchion.
“My case ended up being used as a prisoners’ rights, free speech case,” Forchion said. “It was a precedent case called Forchion called versus ISP.”
In Burlington County in 2012, Forchion went back on trial stemming from a 2010 marijuana arrest.
“I was living in California then but in 2010 I came home for a visit and flew home with a pound of weed in my luggage,” he said. As he was driving back from visiting his children, he was pulled over by a New Jersey State Trooper.
He was charged with intent to distribute and simple possession. The trial ended with a hung jury on the intent to distribute charge, but he was found guilty of possession. Forchion appealed his possession conviction until an appellate court panel of judges upheld the conviction in 2015, saying his arguments “lack sufficient merit to warrant discussion,” according to a write-up of the case in Politico.
He was retried on the distribution charge months later, but wound up beating it entirely after a jury returned a verdict of not guilty 12-0. This is around the time jury nullification advocates across the country began paying attention to Forchion.
“I made national news,” he said. He never denied to the jury that he had the marijuana; instead, he promoted it. “I consider a hung jury a victory for the defendant.”
He argued to the jury that the law was wrong, not him, and he was found not guilty. “I had the pound of marijuana, I asked the jurors to give it back,” he said. “I told them that I smoke marijuana every day.”
He even went as far as telling the jurors that he smoked marijuana that same morning, according to Forchion, and that he was eating pot brownies throughout the duration of his trial. “I didn’t hide anything,” he said. “I knew they couldn’t get 12.”
Tactics such as these are what he believes are holding him in jail under the bail reform act.
“And this is what the prosecutors in Mercer County know about me,” he said. “They can see my history. Not only have I won all these big cases where they’ve made news and all that, I’ve won a few municipal court cases, I’ve won a few civil cases.”
In 2013, he was sentenced to nine months in jail for the possession charge, but was granted a unique condition to his imprisonment. Forchion has a medical condition called Osteoclastoma in which tumors grow on his bones, and while in jail, he was permitted to serve an intermittent sentence where he could travel to California for 10 days per month to smoke marijuana as part of his treatment, and then return back to his cell in New Jersey.
“I got what they call giant cell tumors, usually on my big bones—my femurs, my shoulder bones, I could get it on my head or my sternum in my chest,” he said. He has gotten the tumors on his femur and on occasions on the inside of his hip. He currently has two tumors on his shoulders, but since they are small in size he decided to not have them removed.
Forchion was first diagnosed in 2001 while serving his prison sentence for possessing more than 40 pounds of weed, but he remembers discovering symptoms a decade before his diagnosis.
In 1991, for instance, his knee began incessantly aching. “I kept thinking it was an athletic injury,” he said. “I was diagnosed in 2001 when I first went to prison.”
Forchion said that just before he was arrested on the witness tampering charges in March 2017, his tumors came back. “It’s in my knee again,” he said. “Just above my knee.” During his pretrial detention under the bail reform act, Forchion has been taken to the hospital on several occasions for treatment.
In addition to the witness tampering charge, Forchion also picked up other charges stemming from his restaurant’s drug bust. He is facing other drug-related charges after police allegedly found him with marijuana when he was arrested for witness tampering charges at his girlfriend’s home. In September 2016 Forchion was indicted on a cyber bullying charge after he called a Trenton police officer a “pedophile” online. He’s also called a prosecutor a slut.
Forchion has pulled countless other outlandish stunts. He’s smoked pot in the New Jersey Statehouse and in front of the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. He’s tried to legally change his name, twice, to NJWeedman.com. But perhaps the penchant that draws him the most criticism is his online behavior.
Forchion does do a lot of smack-talking online; it’s what got him charged with witness tampering in the first place. His Facebook has a photo that reads: “If you are shocked by anything I say, then you obviously haven’t been paying attention to who I am.” Whenever questioned on these tendencies, he’s always fell back on the defense that his speech is protected by the First Amendment, regardless of how inflammatory.
“He’s addicted to Facebook, Twitter and all those things,” Debi Madaio, Forchion’s girlfriend, said. “He got barred from Donald Trump’s because he was tweeting at him too much.” (A federal court ruling in late May of 2018 said it was unconstitutional for the president to block users on Twitter, but it did not force him to unblock critics already banished from his account.) Madaio, who met Forchion nearly five years ago, said that Forchion “calls himself a media whore.”
As a registered nurse, Madaio can’t smoke marijuana because she is drug tested, but she is still a tireless advocate. Working as a nurse manager at one of the state’s largest children’s specialized hospital, Madaio has seen a lot of children in rough shape. One day, she met a baby boy who was born prematurely and was in the state’s care. Not too long later, after raising two daughters of her own, she adopted him. He was three years old and diagnosed with autism, has seizures and spastic quadriplegia.
Her son Aidan, who is now 11, could benefit from medical marijuana, Madaio believes. That’s the reason why she first began advocating for marijuana, which is how she came about meeting Forchion. The two at the first annual cannabis conference in Trenton rallying for the legalization of pot. Flash forward about five years, and Forchion would be proposing to her from the court room.
It was November 2017 and he was in jail pretrial under the bail reform act for his witness tampering charges. He was waiting for the verdict to come back from the jury on his charges when he asked her to marry him.
“Since I’ve been here I did ask her to marry me. She didn’t answer me, she said, ‘Get out faster,’” Forchion said with a chortle. “So, that’s another reason why I’ve got to get out.”
“Ed is an open book,” Madaio said. “I just have to laugh at a lot of the stuff he does.”
Aside from his online persona, there is a lot about NJ Weedman that doesn’t make it into the papers.
For one, Forchion loves talking about the Colonial period and the history of the United States. “I’m kind of a nerd,” he said. “As much as people want to throw me into the realm of being a thug drug dealer—I’m not. I absolutely am not.” Since Forchion has been detained awaiting his trial, he spends nearly every minute in the jail’s library. Like a badger spending a winter deep inside his burrow, Forchion spends his incarceration among the legal texts and law books in the Mercer County Correctional Center.
Forchion for years has enjoyed a minor celebrity status. He has somewhat of a cult following throughout the Garden State, but it all began with a simple decision.
“Calling myself Weedman was a gimmick for publicity,” he said, “and it worked.” Forchion’s marijuana advocacy has landed him in the pages and on the home screens of publications like Vice, the Daily Mail, Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia Weekly and LA Weekly. His antics have been picked up by the Associated Press and shared with papers throughout the nation. He has been featured for years as a regular caller on the state’s widest-reaching radio station, NJ 101.5. He has spoken for various podcasts and had a column for The Trentonian, one of the most-read papers in New Jersey’s capital.
“Sometimes I say I’m infamous as opposed to famous. Sometimes I say I’m a counterculture celebrity, but,” he said, “all over the country I’ve been written about.”
He has been featured in television programs and documentaries including: “The Emperor Wears No Clothes;” “How Weed Won the West;” “1000 Ways to Die: Fatal Distractions;” and “Million Mask Movement.” Forchion is currently the subject of a documentary by filmmaker Brian Scully examining bail reform and the criminal justice system in New Jersey.
He even has his name listed on the International Movie Database, a fact that he is gleefully proud of.
If you search for Forchion on IMDB.com, you will see his name come up along with two other Forchions. NJ Weedman said he is related to Raymond Forchion who played O.J. Simpson in a dramatization of the football star’s 1995 murder case. Bill Forchion, another cousin of Forchion’s, is a famous circus performer. If you search for Forchion on Google, however, articles about NJ Weedman dominate the search results.
Forchion also has this uncanny ability to recall dates and times of specific events. He can recite full docket numbers of his legal cases, and the exact URLs of pamphlets he has published on his website, even while in a jail cell with no internet access.
“I have a memory like an elephant,” Forchion said. “I don’t know why but I have a very good memory. I may forget people’s names but I remember entire conversations.”
He has written books, too, including “Public Enemy #420” published in 2010, and “Politics of Pot, Jersey Style: The persecution prosecution of NJweedman” published in 2014. He’s also writing another book while in jail and said he is more 2,000 pages in.
Forchion is a frequent candidate for office, as well. He ran for governor of New Jersey and for Congress, both of which earned him mentions in The New York Times. In fact, when he ran for Congressional District 12, Forchion, who campaigned on the self-created Legalize Marijuana Party, received the third most votes at 6,094, which was more than what the Green Party and Libertarian candidates combined.
Whether these political ambitions are genuine or are, like his name, just a gimmick, he doesn’t seem to tire from them. Forchion recently announced a new candidacy and is running for Congress again, this time from behind bars.
What is a lesser known fact about Forchion is that he is a veteran who has served in three separate branches of the U.S. military. He was also a big-rig truck driver.
In 1982, Forchion graduated from high school and joined the New Jersey National Guard. He served in the summer and on weekends for two years while he was in college. After he was in college for two years, he dropped out of school and joined the Marines. While in the Marines, he received a medical discharge because he had pneumonia and asthma, he said. In 1987, Forchion re-enlisted and joined the Army.
In between his time in the Marines and joining the Army, though, Forchion worked in Atlantic City at Donald Trump’s restaurant, he said.
“I waited on Donald Trump for two years,” Forchion said. The eatery he worked at was named Ivana’s Restaurant. He ended up suing Trump, filing a discrimination lawsuit alleging he was wrongfully fired, but the case was dismissed. After that, it was back to the service. “I’ve always wanted to be in the military,” he said.
Forchion was a combat and orthopedic medic and served in Germany when the U.S. invaded Panama. “I worked in the orthopedic ward,” he said. “I was there when Reagan came and said, ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!”
He loved the army. His family has a long history of serving in the military, and he regrets leaving the service to this day. “To be honest with you, one of my biggest mistakes was getting out of the military,” he said. Forchion left the Army in June 1990, just months before the Gulf War started. When he left the Army, he became an 18-wheeler trucker. “I traveled this whole country,” he said. “I’ve been to every state but two: Hawaii and Alaska.”
Trucking was Forchion’s way of visiting different parts of the country, a dream that he always had. “I owned my own truck so I could travel the country and get paid,” he said. “If I wanted to watch a Ziggy Marley concert in Seattle, I’d just take a load to Washington state, get there, see the concert, and get back in the truck.” He still owns a truck, it’s sitting at his mother’s house.
Although Forchion lived in California and traveled the continental U.S. for years, he has been a Jersey boy since birth. Growing up, Forchion’s mother took in a lot of foster children. He has two siblings, but there “were always like eight kids at the house,” he said. He was raised in Sicklerville, a town located within the boundaries of Winslow Township in Camden County.
“I grew up riding dirt bikes and fishing. It was really rural there.” The dirt trails that Forchion once rode on are now gone and have been replaced by peach farms and sprawling developments. “It’s mostly white with a few black families that have been there forever,” he said. “My family has been around in Winslow Township since the 1800s.”
Years later when Forchion moved to California, he lived an existence vastly different from his humble, rural beginnings.
“When I went to Hollywood, I became this little B-celebrity,” he said. “I was hanging out with celebrities. I was hobknobbing, I was on a couple of TV shows. I was on TMZ three times.”
When he opened up the first Liberty Bell Temple, the one that was closed down after he was raided, celebrities often stopped by.
“Celebrities were coming to my place,” he said. “I can’t even name all of the celebrities I ended up hanging out with just by calling myself Weedman.”
After his Hollywood business was raided, Forchion said he was out of money and had nowhere left to go but back home. “I was out of business, I was struggling for money, and I got sick,” he said. “So, I came home to my mom’s house in Sicklerville.” He stayed at his mother’s house for about a year and half and his bone condition was reemerging, he said. He had surgery, the tumor was removed, but he broke his femur after the surgery because his leg was weak from the tumor. He had a cast put on and by October 2014, the cast was removed.
“By November, I was itching to go do something again,” he explained. “I was going to go back to California, but I re-bonded with my kids and everything, so I didn’t want to go back to California.” He had to come up with another plan, another project for the unwearying Weedman.
“That’s when I decided I was going to go to Trenton,” he said. “I’m going to open up a spot in Trenton.”
On April 16, 2018, Forchion had his first court appearance since the day he beat the second-degree witness tampering charge in November. He entered the brightly lit courtroom wearing an orange jumpsuit with the words “Political Prisoner #420” scrawled on the back. His dreadlocks were pushed back. He still had bags under his eyes, he was still tired.
He asked the judge if his other charges, the cyber bullying charge and the marijuana charges, could be included in the trial for his witness tampering. The request was denied. Instead, Forchion was given another 22 days of excludable time for his appeal, and was given an estimated trial date of May 8. It’s what he’s been waiting to hear for the past year.
“I think I’m going to win,” he said. “I think I’m unconvictable.” He doesn’t plan on taking any sort of plea deal, now or ever again, for that matter. “I go through life never quitting, and taking a plea bargain would be quitting,” he said. “Taking a plea bargain would also be violating my constitutional right to a trial, and I insist that the constitution applies to me.”
He said that when he gets out, whenever that day is, he will be shifting his willpower, which he seems to have an endless supply of, from marijuana to New Jersey’s bail reform act.
“I’ve been calling myself NJ Weedman and advocating for marijuana legalization for years,” he said, “but when this is all said and done, I’m going to be the biggest advocate against bail reform there is. I will become the John Walsh of bail reform repeal.”
After spending 447 days in jail awaiting his trial, Forchion was acquitted of his third-degree witness tampering charge after he was found not guilty of the crime by a jury on May 24. He said he plans on amending his federal lawsuit to include grievances about his pretrial imprisonment.
Forchion also plans on finishing the book that he’s been working on. He said it is nearing completion. He feels compelled to tell his story of how he was affected by the bail reform. He’s hoping he can get a deal for the book, but if it not, it won’t bother him much. He’s writing it for a more crucial reason.
“I don’t even know if people will buy the book,” he said. “I’m writing this for history’s sake.”