Proposed New Jersey Legalization Bill Leaves Minority Business Owners Up In Smoke

A report from The Philadelphia Inquirer earlier this month described the downsides and drawbacks of New Jersey’s proposed legalization measure as seen through the eyes of one of the state’s staunchest cannabis allies, Ed “NJ Weedman” Forchion. As Governor-elect Phil Murphy prepares to sign the measure into law, and state officials crackle at the anticipated sales tax boon, Forchion continues to sit in a jail cell, a victim of the War on Drugs. While the proposed legislation would see Forchion’s charges dropped should it become law, the bill’s provisions will prevent him and others like him with a criminal record from reaping the benefits of a legalized economy.

“I was so angry because I was arrested for weeeeed.”

The self-proclaimed “NJ Weedman” has been a provocateur in the battle for legalized marijuana for over 20 years in New Jersey, according to a profile in The Philadelphia Inquirer. His activism began in 1997 when, apropos, he was arrested on marijuana charges. After spending a few days in a cell up in Bellmawr, Forchion became an engaged citizen concerned about marijuana rights.

As he told The Inquirer in an interview, “I was so angry because I was arrested for weeeeed.”

Since then the man who unsuccessfully tried to change his name to has taken activism to a new level. In one notable political stunt, Forchion, after a failed attempt to call into Governor Chris Christie’s radio show, waited for the Governor outside the studio. In a video posted on Facebook Forchion greets the Governor with the question,  “When are you going to stop arresting people for marijuana?” The exchange that followed was friendly, with Christie laying most of the blame on federal marijuana laws.

But with his activism also came trouble with the law. In 2010, after a traffic stop in Mt. Holly, NJ, Forchion was arrested and charged with possession with intent to distribute. Sentenced to two years probation on the possession charge,  Forchion's ended up with a hung jury on the intent to distribute. In a separate trial Forchion urged the jury to nullify the allegations, calling his arrest, and the law, unjust. The acquittal came in a 12-0 decision by the jury. Arrests and jail time followed over the next seven years.

“We have a failed war on drugs.”

The bill going through New Jersey’s statehouse right now, according to The Inquirer, would disqualify anyone with a past drug conviction from participating in the new marijuana marketplace. The regulations, as they stand now, state that licenses to distribute will not be given to those with a criminal past.

Forchion sees this as just another way the War on Drugs ends up disproportionately affecting minorities. In his words, “Caucasian cannabis corporations” will end up running New Jersey’s cannabis industry while African Americans will, at best, receive a token seat at the table.

“Legalization is coming, but the people who are the victims of the unjust laws are being shut out. I’ve been the biggest advocate, and I can’t get into this multi-billion industry that’s coming because of laws that say if you are a felon, you can’t be part of it,” Forchion told The Inquirer in an interview.

Even though the bill has a provision setting aside licenses for minority and female-owned business, it probably will not be enough. As The Inquirer pointed out in their article, African-Americans have much higher arrest rates when it comes to marijuana, according to a study done by the ACLU, that many hopeful business owners are already starting out behind.

Lawmakers do sympathize with Forchion’s plight, though sympathy can only take one so far. “[His] acts of civil disobedience … kept marijuana in the news a long time,” State Senator Nick Scutari said of Forchion to The Inquirer.  “Attitudes are slowly changing,  and … people are starting to realize we have a failed war on drugs, and he’s not doing harm to anyone by smoking marijuana.”

“Getting locked up for marijuana is absurd.”

Forchion at least hopes that the new bill will allow residents of New Jersey to grow marijuana in their backyard. And he is not alone, as recently another group, The state chapter of the Drug Policy Alliance and the Coalition for Medical Marijuana New Jersey made this a topic of discussion among lawmakers, according to The Inquirer.

Medical marijuana patients in New Jersey are worried that recreational use will have an impact on them. Their concern is that large companies catering to recreational users will not grow strains needed for specific ailments. Hence the reason many patients advocate for home growing policies within the new law.

Still, for now, the NJ Weedman sits in a jail cell, unable to reap the benefits of his pet cause for over 20 years. And as he told The Philadelphia Inquirer, “Getting locked up for marijuana is absurd.”

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