Ed Forchion, known as NJ Weedman for his attention-grabbing advocacy of legalizing marijuana, began his criminal trial Thursday by freely admitting that he had a pound of the drug inside a duffel bag in his car trunk when police stopped him two years ago in Mount Holly.
Then, Forchion lifted his shirt and a pant leg to display for the jury the scars he says came from recent surgeries to remove bone tumors. He said marijuana alleviated pain associated with the condition.
"I don't feel I did anything wrong," Forchion, a Rastafarian, said as he defended himself in the unusual drug-dealing case in Superior Court in Burlington County. "That marijuana in that bag was for me. I use it under the care of a doctor."
The trial touches on the uneven treatment of marijuana possession in the country. Forchion has a card issued in California permitting his use of medical marijuana, but New Jersey does not recognize such cards — even though two years ago it became the 15th state to allow the drug to be prescribed for certain illnesses. The implementation of New Jersey's program has been delayed, and so far no state resident has received a card needed to get the drug legally.
Forchion, 47, who ran a well-known medical-marijuana dispensary and temple in Hollywood for several years, was visiting family and friends in the Pemberton area, his former home, when he was arrested April 1, 2010, during a traffic stop. He was charged with possession of marijuana with intent to distribute, a charge that can carry a prison term of up to 10 years, including five without parole since he has a prior conviction.
Forchion said that he smoked marijuana almost every day to alleviate the pain from his tumors and that the amount he carried would get him through a month or two while he was in New Jersey.
But Assistant Prosecutor Michael Luciano — who along with Gov. Christie received marijuana seeds in the mail from Forchion while the charges were pending — asked the jury to uphold the law and not be swayed by Forchion's "spin." He said Forchion's excuse for having marijuana was irrelevant because "you can't have it in New Jersey."
"Mr. Forchion is congenial, he's polite, he's intelligent. And Mr. Forchion is a charlatan. Mr. Forchion is a wolf in hemp clothing," Luciano said.
During pretrial hearings, Judge Charles Delehey clashed with Forchion when he learned Forchion's plan was to put the state's marijuana laws on trial. Delehey said the jury's job was only to judge the facts and apply them to existing law.
Luciano told the judge that he did not trust Forchion to abide by the judge's instruction. He also reminded the jurors that they may not let their personal opinions or passions influence their verdict. -"I hold you to your oaths," he said.
During jury selection, several potential jurors were excused when they said they were not sure they could put aside their convictions about the decriminalization of marijuana.
"We're trying to get an impartial jury," the judge said after asking jurors for their views on the "war on drugs."
Forchion, who said he previously served in the National Guard and the Army, said he became a marijuana activist when he was living in Tucson, Ariz., in the 1990s, when a referendum was held to gauge public sentiment.
"I call myself a peaceful, proud, patriotic pothead," he said.
Unlike the first time he tried marijuana, when he was 14, he said, he no longer gets giggly or "goofy." Instead, Forchion said, he uses it to treat the benign bone tumors that grow in different parts of his body. He held up X-rays that showed the tumors.
"One day, my bones will break; that's what will happen," he said. "I surely don't want to be going through that in state prison."
The trial will continue Tuesday and is expected to conclude next week.
Contact Jan Hefler at 856-779-3224 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @JanHefler. Read her blog on philly.com/BurlcoBuzz.