A Superior Court judge in Burlington County sentenced a nationally known marijuana activist to two years' probation and more than $3,400 in fines and fees on Wednesday for possessing a pound of pot in his car nearly three years ago.
Ed Forchion, who calls himself "NJ Weedman," had exploited the inconsistency of criminal and medical-marijuana drug laws to win acquittal of the more serious charge of drug distribution when he was tried in October.
Forchion could have faced 10 years in prison on the distribution charge.
After the hearing, he said: "I'm happy I'm not going to prison, but it was what I expected."
The 48-year-old former New Jersey resident who lives in Los Angeles could have received up to 18 months for possessing marijuana.
Judge Charles Delehey allowed him to serve his probation in California. He also ordered him to begin paying his fines at the rate of $100 a month.
Forchion said he plans to appeal his sentence on the grounds that he would "qualify for medical marijuana in New Jersey" but was still prosecuted. He has a license to use medical marijuana in California, but New Jersey doesn't recognize it.
He has a rare disorder in which bone tumors multiply in his body, according to his doctor's reports.
New Jersey is one of 18 states that view the use and sale of marijuana as criminal except when there are medical reasons. Forchion was visiting family and friends in New Jersey when he was arrested on April 1, 2010.
Forchion admitted he possessed the drug, which was found during a traffic stop, but argued that he uses it for medical reasons and didn't intend to sell it.
Legal authorities said Forchion is the first criminal defendant in New Jersey to be allowed to base his defense on his license to use medical marijuana.
Delehey permitted this line of argument, but barred Forchion from "putting New Jersey's marijuana laws on trial," saying the jury's function was to judge the facts, not laws.
Assistant prosecutor Michael Luciano recommended 12 months in prison, noting Forchion's criminal record, including theft charges and a sentence for conspiracy to distribute marijuana. Forchion served 18 months in 2001-2002 on the conspiracy charge.
But Don Ackerman, Forchion's public defender, said his client has had only minor municipal offenses since then, mostly relating to his pro-marijuana protests. He also argued that Forchion is receiving experimental treatment for his tumors that appears to be working and that can't be continued if he was sent to prison.
The judge said probation was warranted because Forchion does "not fit among a group of hardened criminals that include murderers (and) rapists," and he has painful bone tumors that require treatment.
The experimental treatment Forchion is getting at a Santa Monica oncology center is "producing results," according to doctors' reports, the judge said, and he should continue the program.
In January 2010 - three months before Forchion's arrest - a law was signed in New Jersey allowing marijuana to be sold to patients with certain serious illnesses, including cancer and multiple sclerosis.
The law limits the drug to residents who get special identification cards after their doctors certify they have such ailments. Only licensed dispensaries may sell the drug.
After several delays, the state's first and so far only nonprofit marijuana dispensary opened in Montclair in December.