TRENTON — A rally to raise awareness is being held this week with organizers hoping to spread a message of how far marijuana reform has come in the state, and how far they believe it still has yet to go. All this is being done despite the fact that one of the original organizers remains in jail during a lengthy legal battle.

The NJ Cannabis Community Rally is scheduled to be held on Friday with a march that will go from Trenton City Hall to the steps of the Statehouse, according to Ken Wolski of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana in New Jersey.

The rally outside the Statehouse — which takes place on April 20, a nod to the "420" code word for weed — was started two years ago by Edward "NJ Weedman" Forchion.

 

According to the event's Facebook page the rally is expected to start at 10 a.m. at 137 West State Street.

The state Division of Consumer Affairs is holding "informal conferences" in Newark and Trenton this week and next as "part of a process to reevaluate whether the currently accepted uses for medical marijuana warrant a change in its classification as a Schedule 1 drug in New Jersey," a statement from the division said. Schedule 1 means a drug has "a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use for treatment in the United States."

There will be two "conferences" held in Newark on Thursday and two more in Trenton on April 24. The statement from the division notes changes in scheduling is different than legalization and decriminalization, but can affect how strictly a drug is regulated. The federal government still considers marijuana a Schedule 1 drug, but a 2014 appellate court decision gave the director the ability to reschedule it without affecting federal law.

In addition to the legal complications facing the future of marijuana usage in the state, Wolski said the rally will also shine a spotlight on the legal complications Forchion is facing. Forchion has been in jail for more than a year facing witness tampering charges, despite the fact that he has not been convicted of a crime.

Last year he was found not guilty of one count of witness tampering, while a second charge ended in a hung jury. After the verdict, Forchion asked that the judge reopen his detention hearing but was told that the motion was not properly filed. The charges and detention stem from a narcotics raid of Forchion's restaurant, NJ Weedman's Joint, two years ago. Police say Forchion put an informant at risk by sharing his name on social media. Forchion claims he never intended to intimidate the informant with his posts.

Although most criminal defendants are let go without bail since the state implemented new bail reform rules last year, Forchion remains locked up with no chance of bail because witness tampering is one of the few offenses for which a judge may hold a defendant through trial.

"We think it's a situation of vindictiveness in the criminal justice system keeping Weedman locked up for over a year in his current situation," Wolski said.

Forchion told New Jersey 101.5 that at a hearing on Monday he learned that jury selection in his trial on the second count will start next month.

"This is a malicious prosecution. It's baseless and meritless too," he said. "The witness tampering charge is a pretense just to lock me up, to silence me. I am truly an American political prisoner right now due to our war on drugs."

Comparing himself and the government to the biblical figures of David and Goliath, Forchion said it has been a long fight to clear his name.

Forchion said he was "disappointed" he wasn't going to be at the rally.

"There's still a war going on on marijuana. My absence is a clear example of that," he said. This may even be the last one before legalization comes and I'm not going to be there. It's kind of disheartening."

Forchion said he has gone from "zero to hero" as part of the marijuana reform movement, and credited Wolski with being "one of the first ones to hear me out."

"Gov. Murphy ran on this argument. This was one of his platform stances to legalize marijuana and he has somehow ran into a little bit of a roadblock," Forchion said. "He said within the first 100 days, and 100 days is just about up now and we don't have legalization. It doesn't look like it's going to happen in the first 100 days. Who knows what will happen over the next six months or the next year."

Since its inception more than a decade ago, Wolski said the group has been involved in numerous rallies and other events to promote changes in the field of marijuana, calling Friday's event "kind of an outgrowth of the patients and the advocates for marijuana reform making their voices heard at the Statehouse."

The event is expected to include speeches and musical performances, according to a flyer put out by the coalition. With Gov. Phil Murphy using legalization of marijuana as a platform of his campaign this year, and already making changes to the availability of medical marijuana, Wolski said it is an "exciting" time for people in the field.

"Our organization formed in 2003 before there even was the medical marijuana law, or even a medical marijuana bill that spent five years in the legislature before it was signed into law by Gov. Corzine in 2010," he said. "Then for eight years of the Christie administration it was kind of like pulling teeth to get meaningful participation in medicinal marijuana programs. Now, with Gov. Murphy coming onboard and promising to legalize marijuana, it's a very exciting time in New Jersey for advocates for marijuana reform."

Last month, Murphy announced that more conditions can now be treated by medical marijuana, it will be less expensive to sign up, and there will be an expansion in the number of dispensaries across the state.

The new conditions added for treatment include anxiety, migraines, Tourette syndrome and chronic pain. The changes also made it easier for the health commissioner to add more conditions in the future. It is believed that more than 100,000 patients could benefit from the changes to the program, which currently has more than 18,000 New Jersey residents registered.

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