THE WEEDMAN’S mom sat on the stairs in a maroon nightgown, her hands folded neatly in her lap, her face a balance of worry and love.
Elizabeth Brown listened while her son waxed passionately about marijuana and the law on this recent Monday night in her home in Winslow Township, Camden County. Those are Ed “NJ Weedman” Forchion’s two favorite subjects, and he’s practically a Rhodes scholar on both.
Brown calls him Robby, not Ed, and certainly not Weedman, because Robert’s his birth name. She’s proud of his fighting spirit, and she helped put it there. She just wishes it had played out differently, maybe law school or something.
“You know how many times I’ve told him that?” she said as he looked up at her from the base of the stairs. “I just wish life was a little easier for him. ”
The Weedman is 50 now, a grandfather, and he’s been fighting marijuana laws since he was busted in a Camden County sting in 1997. He’s won some substantial cases in court – mostly by representing himself, his supporters point out – and he’s hoping for more victories.
“I’m not a thief, I’m not a robber. I just don’t comply with the weed laws,” he said from behind the wheel of his Weedmobile earlier that day. “I got a joint in my pocket right now. The law is wrong, not me. ”
In 2012, he persuaded a jury to believe that. He was caught with a pound of weed, but he also suffers from bone tumors in his leg and had a medical-marijuana card from California that New Jersey wouldn’t honor. The law was wrong, he argued, and he was found not guilty on distribution charges through a “jury-nullification” defense, a rare victory in the United States.
The New Jersey Appellate Court in Trenton will hear his appeal on the possession conviction in coming months.
“This is my Super Bowl,” he said of the upcoming appeal.
‘He helped grow it’
Today, April 20, seems appropriate for a renewed look at Weedman, who has long championed the legal use of 420, as marijuana is called by many proponents.
Forchion has won the respect of pot activists in New Jersey and beyond, sometimes begrudgingly, over the past two decades. He never settled for just medicinal-marijuana reform and never traded his pot-leaf T-shirts for ties or his middle fingers for handshakes.
“People will remember him as being part of the movement. He helped grow it himself,” said Chris Goldstein, co-chairman of Philly NORML. “When marijuana is legalized in America, Ed’s name won’t be left off the victory wall. ”
When he started to make noise in 1997, Forchion said, he was a lone soldier, pounding on elected officials’ doors and strolling into the statehouse, a spliff blazing on his lips every time. He got arrested often and ran for office often – Congress, the county freeholder board, you name it – and legalizing marijuana was his platform.
“My message hasn’t changed since I started,” he said. “I’m no longer a lone soldier, though. I’m at the front of a green army. ”
The marijuana situation in the Garden State is still a bag of schwag as far as Forchion’s concerned – the laws still full of stems and seeds that make it nearly impossible for someone to smoke unless the person has a terminal illness.
This year alone, though, Gov. Chris Christie has fielded several questions about the prospects of recreational use and decriminalization in Jersey and beyond, including a few from Forchion himself. Christie and Forchion are both blunt, admitting they liked one another when they met outside a New Jersey radio station last month.
“You’ve been following me for a dozen years,” Christie said to him.
Christie recently said it was “blood money” to collect taxes from recreational-marijuana sales and said he’d work to end recreational marijuana in Colorado and Washington if elected president. The good news, Forchion said, is that Christie can’t govern forever, and he doesn’t think Christie will win the presidency, either.
In New Jersey, he said, “I think the dam is going to break when Christie’s gone. ”
Forchion dreams of opening a dispensary or a Rastafarian temple, like the one he briefly operated in California, in his home state. It’s what he’s been working toward all these years. The cause has cost him his freedom, two wives, jobs, a bunch of elections, and plenty of crops and the expensive gear it takes to grow them.
He’s been a martyr to marijuana reform, and he had to borrow money to put gas in the Weedmobile.
“I’ve got fame,” he said, “but I’m broke. ”
High times in Calif.
Forchion scrubbed the chrome rims of the Weedmobile in his mother’s driveway in the morning, preparing to drive up to a radio station in Robbinsville, near Trenton, where he co-hosts a weekly cannabis-related program. He purchased the 1986 Ford Econoline van when he was making a name for himself in Hollywood as the owner and operator of the Liberty Bell Temple.
California was the highest of times for him, and then the Drug Enforcement Administration raided the place in 2011 and took everything. The van, a durable, cross-country veteran bedecked with herbal art, is pretty much all he has left, along with his dutiful road dog, Cheeba, a pit-bull mix he found in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
“Get in the back, Cheeba,” he told the dog before pulling off for Robbinsville.
Forchion’s living in Winslow again, the town he grew up in about 30 miles southeast of Philly. On a tour of his childhood haunts, old homes and the churches he attended, he drove past vast stretches of piney forests and the ponds where he caught turtles and bass. There was a turkey in his grandmother’s yard when he passed her house. That’s the first place he tried to grow marijuana.
“I grew up middle class,” he said. “My life was fishing and riding dirt bikes. ”
The first time he smoked marijuana was at a family party in Willingboro. It was a cousin’s friend, he thinks, who had the joint, and the peer pressure got to him. He was a teenager. It became a daily routine.
The Forchion family attended a Baptist church next door to their house in the woods, and Brown later let her son explore Islam when he begged her. Forchion found Rastafarianism for obvious reasons, he said, although he’s not orthodox in his daily practice.
“I don’t reject it, but I eat hamburgers now,” he said.
In 1982, he graduated from Edgewood Regional High School in Winslow, and briefly attended Claflin University in South Carolina before joining the U.S. Army. He tried to be a Marine, but his asthma got him dismissed, he said, and the one thing that alleviated his asthma was weed.
Marijuana was always there, even as he worked driving rigs like his father after the Army, and it stayed with him through his marriage and the birth of his children. On the Monday before Thanksgiving in 1997, however, marijuana became a cause.
That’s when Forchion and his brother, Russell, were arrested during a sting in Bellmawr, Camden County. He had shipped 45 pounds of marijuana there from Arizona and the police found out about it and arrested them both after it arrived.
That arrest resulted in a brief mention in the Inquirer, and less than six months later the paper ran a larger story on his protests and efforts to run for political office.
“There are a lot of marijuana users out there who would love to see the drug legalized,” he told the paper in 1998.
Forchion acknowledges that he could have just kept his mouth shut back then and smoked his stuff in the privacy of his own home like millions of other Americans. That’s what his brother did, but Russell Forchion always looked up to his older brother, even if he couldn’t join him in the trenches.
“He’s a smart guy. He could have done whatever he wanted, but he chose this. That’s admirable to me,” Russell Forchion, 45, said last week. “I wish I could have had the fight in me that he had. ”
Respect from motorists
From the time Forchion left his home and drove up to Mercer County and back on this Monday, motorists slowed to shoot him peace signs and fists of solidarity.
“This happens every day,” he said as a car passed and beeped on the Atlantic City Expressway.
When the “Fully Baked Radio” show was over, Forchion held court in a parking-lot smoke session and later watched two co-hosts toke their medicinal buds outside a police station. One co-host compared the Weedman to Jesus because of all the “bulls—” they both went through.
Later, he decided that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a better comparison, calling Forchion the MLK of marijuana activism.
The Weedmobile struggled home, chugging along the highways with a gunked-up fuel filter. When Forchion coasted into a gas station in his hometown, a woman pulled up next to him and snapped a picture of the van.
“You can tag me with hashtag Weedmobile,” he told her.
Back at the house, none of this impressed his mother much. He told her that things were looking up, but Elizabeth Brown just gave him that look. Love and worry for the Weedman, for Robby.
On Twitter: @JasonNark