In this edition of WWR, Heather sits down for a hazy interview with a true New Jersey original, the one and only Ed Forchion, better known of course as NJ Weedman.
Plug the Joint, Man
Heather met Weedman for this interview at his Trenton “joint”, as he calls it: 322 East State Street, conveniently located across the street from the city hall and state capitol buildings.
And as those who visit find out, this joint isn’t just some lazy stoner’s smoke pad.
“There is a restaurant, we serve chicken wings, hamburgers, fish, vegetables, a few munchie foods,” says Ed, but as he explains, his joint is more than just a restaurant.
Not Just a Restaurant
“We have what we call a sanctuary. Our sanctuary is where I encourage people to smoke marijuana, I encourage people to meet people who come here, I feel like they are a part of my congregation,” explains Weedman.
Ed explains his congregation is a registered religious corporation called the Liberty Bell Temple. He says managing the congregation has not been without it’s legal hurdles.
“I have won a couple cases in California based on it,” says Ed. “I have not actually had that argument here, even though I had primed myself for the argument and they arrested me for some other stuff.”
Weedman also mentions a courtyard in the back of the joint which he calls the “Canebosem Courtyard”. According to Ed, “Canebosem” is Latin for cannabis. Again, he encourages his Courtyard visitors to not hold back from blazing up.
“I encourage people to smoke marijuana back there, I encourage people to network, to meet, partake, a few other words I guess I could throw in there,” he says.
A Social Space
Weedman considers his joint to be a “meet and greet” type of establishment which caters to the growing cannabis community in New Jersey. He sees it as a place where all types of marijuana users, from medicinal patients to seasoned potheads, can get together and bond over their shared love of bud. Except, he doesn’t like the term “recreational users.” He prefers “social users”, instead.
“‘Recreational’” sounds like you’re doing pushups and smoking joints,” he jokes. “That’s not what we do. We socialize.”
The Religious Use of Marijuana
Ed also mentions the religious use of marijuana, and notes that the proposed marijuana legislation currently stalled up in Trenton fails to adequately address this sect of the cannabis community.
“These new legalize marijuana laws here in New Jersey don’t have any exemptions or any previsions for the religious use,” he explains. “I’m actually going to immediately challenge the laws just for that fact.”
According to Ed, there are many different religious and spiritual groups who use marijuana, such as Rastafarians, Buddhists, and even some Coptic Christians.
A History As Old As The Bible
“Marijuana, ganja, Shiva… has been around for a long time, and it’s been used religiously for a long time,” he explains. “Now the major religions, Catholicism or Christianity, has rejected the use of cannabis. Most of the Muslim sects have rejected the use. But that doesn’t mean that it doesn’t make it religious, still. If you have a right to choose your own religion in America, why can’t you choose your religious practices, too?”
Weedman references the Christian Bible, and in particular, verses in the Book of Genesis which make reference to “seed-bearing plants” such as marijuana. He also points out that the anointing oil used in temples in Jerusalem contained cannabis, and that the anointed One Himself, Mr. Jesus Christ, probably had some of that pot-infused oil on the top of his holy head.
“Marijuana grows all over the Middle East,” says Ed. “If you believe the Christian Bible and you believe Jesus was from that part of the world, then he had to be at least around the substance that we now call marijuana.”
Ed says the lack of provisions for the religious use of pot in the stalled New Jersey legislation contradicts federal law in the area, specifically, in that if an exemption is made for a secular community, exemptions must also be carved out for religious communities.
“We have criminal statutes that say ‘Marijuana is 100% illegal,’ but they’ve made a medical reason for an exemption to that,” he explains. “My argument has always been ‘Fine, if you’re making a medical exemption which is secular, then you must, according to these rulings, make a religious exemption, and the religious exemption would be allowing the religious use of marijuana, not even a particular religion’”.
Jury Nullification: What It Is, William Penn, and Applying It to Pot
One of the issues social justice activists like Weedman are most passionate about is jury nullification, which is when trial juries can find a defendant not guilty simply based on disagreements with, or lack of support for a government’s law.
“I have been talking about jury nullification as long as I have been talking about marijuana legalization,” he says, “and one of the things I always said was: If people engaged in jury nullification in mass, we would defeat the marijuana prohibition.”
Jury Nullification’s History – The Good And The Bad
Ed gives some context as to how jury nullification has operated in the United States historically, like its impact on the Fugitive Slave Act, and how it was applied during the alcohol prohibition of the 1920s and 30s. He says during the Vietnam War; the process was used by and in defense of draft dodgers who refused to serve.
Jury nullification, however, was not always applied to the right side of history. Regrettably, Ed mentions jury nullification was even implemented during the 1940s and 50s to condone white-on-black crime before the Civil Rights Movement began to pick up steam. Even though the process has not always been used correctly, he says it is “long past due” to begin to use jury nullification to end the marijuana prohibition.
A Little History of William Penn
To better explain jury nullification, Weedman dives into the history book to tell the story of a 17th century English Quaker named William Penn. Penn disagreed with the Church of England, and when he began to preach his Quaker teachings, he was arrested. Penn was prosecuted, but the jury still found him not guilty. An angered king persecuted both Penn and the jury, but after a series of debates and arguments, the jury was given the power to acquit. As a result, Penn was freed and he eventually came to America.
The case was a historic for English law, and when William Penn came to America, the Founding Fathers used his case as a blueprint to form the First Amendment, as well as the Fifth Amendment’s protections against self-incrimination, among other provisions.
“Of all the people who were instrumental in making this country the greatest country in the world, William Penn has to be up there,” says Ed.
Weedman then goes into the Alcohol Prohibition of the 1920s and 30s, and explains how there were very few convictions of alcohol possession. “Some of them (the jurors) had drinks at lunch time, and they would come to court for the trail and just say ‘No’. They weren’t going to convict somebody for having alcohol when they themselves used alcohol. We’re at that point now with marijuana,”
Ed explains, “So many people smoke marijuana, so many people believe it should be legal. Our laws are wrong, outdated, they’re based on lies, they’re based in racism, they’re based in exclusion, they’re based on all kinds of oppression and prohibition as opposed to freedom and liberty this country was founded on, and I’ve been saying since basically the late 90s that we should utilize jury nullification.”
NJ Pot Legislation for Rich White Guys and Weedman’s Protest
Weedman admits that the idea of legal pot in New Jersey should make him happy, but says the legislation proposed by the New Jersey Legislature earlier this year did not do that. His gripe with the bill is that it was not inclusive enough, and that it was a bill for the privileged few and not the masses. He said the bill was written for and by the corporate insiders, and he sought to protest the lack of provisions in the legislation by “selling marijuana just like the white guys.”
While that may sound odd, Ed compares the method behind his protest to that of Rosa Parks, the famed Civil Rights pioneer who refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus. He mentions how Parks’ simple act of protest ignited a whole wave of protest in the ensuing Civil Rights Movement.
I Want To Be Arrested
“What I plan on doing is selling marijuana publicly, I want to be arrested,” Ed declares. “As a matter of fact, I think the prosecutors have a dilemma, cause if they let me do it, then of course I’m going to do it every day. If they arrest me, then I proved my point: The rich white guys get to sell marijuana, while the poor black guy still gets prosecuted. I want the world to see that.”
Ed also criticizes New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, who made legalizing marijuana a cornerstone of his 2017 gubernatorial race, for the failures of the proposed legislation. “The governor of this state ran on legalizing marijuana, diversity, and inclusion; when actually, there’s no diversity, very little diversity, there’s a whole lot of exclusion, and I’m excluded. They’re getting ready to pass this law that will keep all of us illegal, but, they’re creating this class of people that they will be allowed to sell, possess, grow, distribute marijuana, and the rest of us aren’t.”
The Court of Public Opinion
While wanting to get arrested may sound extreme, Weedman says there is method to his madness. He wants to prove a point about the chasm between the powerful and the powerless. “Now I have the whole backdrop of: They’re making it legal, and this guy was prosecuted on the 11th hour as you were making it legal for these white guys,” he explains. “I’m basically saying that the black market’s not going nowhere, we’re going to be here, we’re selling, you’re excluding us from this law, so I’m going to protest the law and I’m going to sell. I’m going to do it way more openly now and I’m going to get public opinion on our side.”
Regardless of all the flaws with New Jersey’s marijuana laws and legislation, Weedman still says he’s optimistic. “I mean, you have to be,” he exclaims, “You have to look up, you have to. And legalization isn’t perfect, I think time will help, but how many years will it take to fix it? Optimistically, yes, I think it will get better. It’s just there are very few people who talk about the issues I talk about.”
UPDATE: Ed ended up holding his protest against the NJ marijuana legislation in the New Jersey statehouse annex.
The article accompanying this interview was written by Ryan Hosey