NJ Weedman promises to give prosecutor legal ‘ass whooping’ after major bust
TRENTON — Days after heavily armed police raided his downtown restaurant and pot temple, arresting him and 10 others and carting off $19,000 in alleged marijuana, a defiant NJ Weedman says he won't back down.
In fact, less than 30 hours after his arrest he posted to his Facebook page a video of him rolling up a joint, lighting it up and smoking.
"Fifteen years ago I said I was never going to take a plea," he says on the video. "Since then I've beaten the Burlington County Prosecutor's Office twice. And now Mercer County has lined up for their ass whoopin'."
The notorious marijuana advocate, who operates the eatery and cannabis sanctuary across from City Hall, is facing a litany of charges alleging he was drug dealing and maintaining a narcotics nuisance and a fortified premises in the business, which opened last June.
Forchion, a former congressional and gubernatorial candidate, says authorities "exaggerated and misconstrued the goings on at the temple."
Sure, there's plenty of weed in there, he says. And lots of smoking, both inside and out on the building's eclectically decorated backyard. That he doesn't deny.
But he says he plans on defending himself in court and convincing a jury to acquit him by explaining that he doesn't deal drugs — he just shares. And if people feel like leaving some money in a donation jar, they can.
"I believe I'm conviction proof," he says, figuring that sensible jurors from Mercer County will see that "it's just weed."
Getting a jury to return a not-guilty verdict based on their belief that a law is unjust is a concept known as jury nullification — and judges in New Jersey don't allow defendants to instruct juries to do this. It was tried unsuccessfully last year by a Mays Landing man at trial on charges that he grew marijuana plants in the Pinelands. He was sentenced in January to eight years in prison.
But Forchion has fought the law before and won. He defended himself in a 2012 trial on drug-dealing charges but was found not guilty after a retrial.
In 2003 he convinced a federal judge to release him from prison after he was jailed for advocating marijuana law reforms, which officials claimed violated his parole. Forchion had pleaded guilty in 2000 to drug dealing charges after he and his brother picked up a 40-pound package of marijuana that had been shipped by FedEx. Forchion was sentenced to 10 years but was released on parole after 16 months.
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On Friday afternoon he decided to give his own side of the story, so he invited reporters to his establishment — which is actually a combination of the restaurant called the Joint, which serves turkey sandwiches and other fare for $4.20; an adjoining smoke shop that sells bongs and pipes; and the Liberty Bell Temple, which he says is a bona fide religious institution and exempt from the city's business curfew.
Forchion said the paraphernalia charges were based on the items for sale in the smoke shop. He says the fortified premises charge against him is probably based on his surveillance-camera system. He pointed to a mess of detached wires on the wall of his office where he says police during the raid grabbed the system's recording device. He says he installed the cameras to prove that police were lying or exaggerating about alleged disturbances outside his restaurant.
The temple, meanwhile, is the focus of a federal civil rights lawsuit Forchion filed last month after police busted his shop on the curfew violation. He claims the ordinance violates his religious liberties. The city, which is being defended by the law firm of state Sen. Raymond Lesniak, D-Union, disagrees.
Police say Wednesday's sting was sparked after complaints from "multiple sources" about drug dealing and "constant foot traffic in and out of the establishment at all hours."
Benefit to the community?
Inside, the distinct aroma of marijuana lingers heavily in the air. Mismatched deck chairs serve as restaurant seating. The walls are painted bright yellow and green.
From outside, the Joint and Liberty Bell Temple are the most vibrant occupants of this block on East State Street, facing the City Hall and two towering government office buildings. A few doors down there is a soul foul restaurant and a jewelry shop with signs offering to buy gold. But The Joint's brick facade also overlooks the kind of boarded up and vacant buildings that pockmark much of the state's struggling capital city.
The Joint was such a welcome investment in the city that the legislative district's delegation — state Sen. Shirley Turner, Assemblyman Reed Gusciora and Assemblywoman Liz Muoio — last year presented Forchion with an official, joint resolution by the state Senate and Assembly honoring the "culmination of an extensive planning and building process, which has been brought to fruition only through the extraordinary labors and efforts of a number of devoted people whose commitment to NJ Weedman’s Joint has been exceptional and unwavering."
Forchion has opened up his doors to the homeless, offering them a safe place to sleep. And he often serves free food donated by himself and others.
He also lives here, on a couch bed in his office.
"We're peaceful potheads," Forchion says.
The Joint gets about 100 visitors a day, including government workers and visitors to the offices nearby. Some of them drive an hour to get there. They're of all ages, races and political orientation.
Among Forchion's most ardent supporters is Jay Santos, a 60-year-old Republican committeeman from Brick, who takes marijuana for his back pain, a condition not covered under the state's medical-marijuana law.
"Look at the good he's doing for this neighborhood," Santos says, leaning on his cane. "He'a benefit to this community, not a detriment."
Sergio Bichao is deputy digital editor at New Jersey 101.5. Send him news tips: Call 609-438-1015 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.