Ed “NJWeedman” Forchion hopes the not-guilty verdict a Burlington County jury rendered in his pot distribution trial plants a seed for other medical marijuana patients and sparks a change in the law.
“I think other patients should argue the same points. They can call it the ‘Weedman defense,’ ” he said after a jury of 10 women and two men returned the verdict Thursday following an hourlong deliberation that ended the three-day trial. “The law is wrong. My jury heard that and understood that.”
Forchion, who claims dual residency in Pemberton Township and Los Angeles, was acquitted of possession with the intent to distribute a pound of marijuana that police found in his trunk during a traffic stop on April 1, 2010, in Mount Holly.
The state contended that the sheer volume in Forchion’s possession and the $2,000 in cash he had in his pocket at the time of his arrest were tell-tale signs of distribution, despite the absence of other packaging paraphernalia.
Forchion has maintained that he is no drug dealer. He brought the marijuana from California, where he is a licensed medical marijuana patient, for his own use while on a trip to New Jersey to visit his family, he claimed.
“I don’t use it the way the state says. To me, it’s medicine, it’s food,” Forchion said in his closing argument, noting for the jury that he had been eating pot-laced cookies throughout the trial. “I feel I’m the victim of a flawed law.”
Forchion is believed to be the first defendant in New Jersey to be allowed to present his use of medical marijuana as a defense in a criminal trial, garnering his case attention statewide and beyond as the legalization debate continues.
While he was not allowed to discuss the New Jersey law, which was not in effect when he was arrested nor would it now allow him to legally possess the drug here, Forchion was able to tell the jury that he is a licensed medical marijuana user in California.
At an earlier trial last spring, he was convicted of possession, but that jury could not reach a unanimous decision on the more serious distribution charge, leading to this week’s retrial.
Superior Court Judge Charles Delehey, who presided over both trials, will sentence Forchion in January for possession. The defendant could get up to 18 months in prison, but he likely will get a probationary term.
The longtime activist and author used his criminal case, with the potential exposure of five to 10 years in prison, to rally his cause and start debate.
In pretrial motions, which were subsequently barred from being argued before the jury, Forchion challenged the constitutionality of the state’s criminal code now that New Jersey has a Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana law that recognizes the benefits of cannabis.
He said Thursday he looks forward to the state Appellate Division reviewing that motion when he appeals the possession conviction.
Forchion, who represented himself with the help of court-appointed attorney Donald Ackerman, counted on having a few “potheads” or sympathizers on his jury to keep him out of prison. He said that he thought he was in for another deadlocked jury and that the not-guilty verdict came as a surprise.
“I expected to get one juror, but I got 12,” he said. “I didn’t expect it, and I am very grateful. I think the jury sent a huge message to the state, the governor and the Prosecutor’s Office. People don’t want marijuana users hauled into court and locked up in jail.”
Forchion, who wore a “Marijuana … It’s OK. It’s Just Illegal” T-shirt for his final day of trial, said he plans to stay in New Jersey for about a week to campaign for Congress in New Jersey’s 3rd District.
NJWeedman’s case highlighted the differences in the state’s medical marijuana laws and the national debate over legalization. While Forchion was charged here and faced prison time, in California he ran a successful medical marijuana dispensary.
It was closed when the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration raided it as he awaited trial, effectively putting him out of business even though he was not charged with a crime. Forchion said Thursday that once news of his acquittal reached DEA agents in Los Angeles, he received a call that he could pick up some of his seized business equipment.
Shortly before the retrial started, Forchion opened a new dispensary in California, calling it Luciano’s Place, in honor of the assistant prosecutor in his case.
He almost didn’t get to hear the verdict and his supporters’ applause for the jurors as they left the courtroom. During his closing, Forchion was nearly held in contempt of court for trying to advance his jury nullification argument.
Delehey quickly stopped him, reminding the defendant of his earlier ruling that barred the argument. Forchion began verbally sparring with the judge, who ordered the jury out of the room and told him he would be held in contempt if he continued to ignore the court’s orders.
“If you want to make a martyr of yourself, the court will deal with you,” Delehey said. “You’ve done everything you can to disrupt this trial.”
Jury nullification would have allowed the jurors to disregard the law they were ordered to follow in considering the case and acquit a defendant, no matter what the evidence, in effect nullifying or invalidating the law.
Forchion toed the line and abandoned his blatant jury nullification pitch when court resumed.
The state alleged that because of the sheer volume of the marijuana, his intent was to distribute it. Burlington County Assistant Prosecutor Michael Luciano told the jury that the case was not “a political referendum” on medical marijuana or legalization.
“It is not a litmus test on the war on drugs,” he said.
Luciano also said the numbers and common sense should lead to a guilty verdict, noting that Forchion had enough pot on him to smoke for months, not a brief visit.
By Luciano’s calculations, Forchion would have to smoke two to three joints an hour nonstop for 24 hours to get through the pound of marijuana in about six months. NJWeedman disputed the prosecutor’s math and said it doesn’t fairly portray how he uses the drug.
“He had more than any person could smoke on their own,” Luciano said, reminding the jurors that they didn’t have to find he was selling it to convict him and that sharing also constitutes distribution. “He was going to distribute this for profit. He was going to distribute it because that’s what he believes, that’s his drug, that’s his food and that’s his plant.”