The Rich Get Richer, The Pioneers are Left Out of the Picture
There are visionaries who are left out from their vision, once it’s been cultivated and mushrooms and materializes into something tangible. The sad thing is that this happens in the cannabis industry, too. Advocates who have fought the fight since beyond Reagan find themselves face-to-face with an industry that seems to bypass their conception at Mach speeds. Like Tommy Chong, for example, who was arrested in 2003 for selling glassware. The fuzz said Chong was using “his public image to promote this crime” – the crime, of course, being the sale of silica for smoking cannabis, something humanity, has done for a very long time.
These visionaries, however, paved the once grassy path to legalization. They voiced their dissent when it was a very illegal industry and speaking out meant risking incarceration. Edward Forchion, the NJWeedman, rung the bell and entered the ring over 20 years’ ago. The only significant lengths of time Ed’s been without cannabis were when he served in the US Army (ca. 1990) and when he served a prison sentence (ca. 2000).
“I was first arrested in 1997,” Ed recounted. “I was an advocate amongst my friends, but as soon as I got arrested, I came out arguing for legalization and more visible advocacy. I went head-to-head with the state.”
Following his initial arrest and time served, Ed moved to Los Angeles in 2006 and opened a medical cannabis dispensary, spiritual temple, and lounge called Liberty Bell Temple. But the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) shut his business down in 2012. He returned to New Jersey in 2014 and began organizing like-minded people with a surging interest in cannabis legalization. In addition to his advocacy, Ed wanted to re-open a “temple” devoted to Cannabis sativa like the one he created in L.A.
In 2014, at the first annual cannabis conference in New Jersey, Ed met his current partner, Deborah Madaio, a registered nurse. And in 2015 they unveiled their new temple, a multi-venue, spot called NJWeedman’s Joint, a brick-and-mortar genuflection to cannabis which includes a resurrected Liberty Bell Temple. The restaurant at NJWeedman’s Joint provides the ambiance of a grow room. The Sanctuary is for events like concerts, yoga sessions, and comedy nights. There’s a smoke shop (The Stash Spot) and cannabidiol (CBD) for sale.
“When we opened the doors of NJWeedman’s Joint, we thought we had a gold mine,” Ed commented. “We were openly advocating catering to the cannabis community. The Wall Street Journal and the Associated Press covered our story. It was a media thing all over the country. Our story in The Wall Street Journal was just under a story about Trump deciding to run for President.”
NJWeedman’s Joint happens to be located across the street from City Hall in Trenton, New Jersey. Ed and Debi comply with the New Jersey Compassionate Use of Medical Marijuana Act. In October of 2015, NJWeedman’s Joint started to acquire a lot of nighttime traffic. Because they have a restaurant inside, and people where coming in later to buy food, Ed and Debi started hosting different events, like concerts, comedy nights, and advocacy events. Their desire to stay open beyond 11 P.M. caused backlash with the police, who refused to allow it.
“It seemed like a joke,” Debi told me. “The law says we can be open until 2 A.M. We’re selling chicken wings between 11 P.M. and 2 A.M. Every day in Trenton, someone gets shot. We were cooking chicken wings past 11 P.M., and the police were on it.”
The police once said they got called to NJWeedman’s Joint for a fight. “We have video cameras that show a couple of people smoking cigarettes outside, and then tons of police showed up,” Ed said. “No fight occurred inside or outside of NJWeedman’s Joint; just the cops showing up. We have a video of that that I made public.”
When a fight did occur around the block, Ed says the police were fixated on people outside of NJWeedman’s Joint who were holding Styrofoam containers of chicken wings. So much so, that when an individual involved in the fight came back onto the scene, they hardly noticed. It took multiple bystanders to point out the shirtless, bloodied person to the police.
Ed mentioned that he was a former columnist for The Trentonian newspaper who used to “pick on police and state officials.” “I was needling everybody,” he added. But a police informant claimed to have bought cannabis from Ed, and thus, Ed was denied bail and jailed for 447 days. He was eventually found not guilty on May 24th, 2018, and subsequently filed a lawsuit against the police. NJWeedman’s Joint had to temporarily close.
“We’ve been re-opened for over a year now,” Debi commented, “but it has its consequences. There’s no job protection in New Jersey. Only a few people get to talk about weed and survive.”
“Legalization in New Jersey isn’t about the small guy,” Ed continued. “It’s about the large corporations. As legalization comes, there’s going to be smoke shops, lounges. My place in L.A. was a smoke lounge and dispensary. Now, you’ve got people coming to open the Buffalo Wild Wings of Weed or whatever.”
When Ed got out of jail, there was a new regime in New Jersey that seemed human when it came to legalizing cannabis. I remember hearing just a few years ago that New Jersey would soon have a “recreational” industry. To date, there hasn’t been a whole lot of action. The current administration, according to Ed and Debi, is more open to what they’re doing with NJWeedman’s Joint than those ousted before them.
Ed and Debi aspired to create a place that cannabis advocates would journey to, intendedly or unintendedly, on their personal pilgrimages through life. And they did this in a state that still hasn’t legalized cannabis for everyone to access. Ed and Debi conveyed their success, saying that people of all backgrounds and cultures stop by to meet them, some visitors enjoying the opportunity to let their hair down and freely and openly talk about cannabis. “We’ve been doing everything out in the open since 2015,” Ed added.
“We’re still standing as The Happiest Place on Earth,” Debi continued, “but many people still have to hide in New Jersey. It’s seems our constitution is re-written every day.”
Like many places in the United States, cannabis isn’t cheap. The cost continues to be preclusive to potential medical patients who could significantly enhance their quality of life. But when an ounce costs over $500 and a 90-day prescription is less than $10, cannabis just might not be financially feasible. These people, like many industry visionaries, are also on the outside looking in, while some dispensary owners engorge their coffers. In many places, it takes millions to make millions in the vast cannabis pay-to-play system.
“I’ve been entrenched in the black market for decades,” Ed scoffed. “I’ve been an activist for over 20 years. And yet, the people making millions in this industry don’t look like me. People that were arrested because of weed can’t even get into the market.”
Tie-dye has been replaced with suits and ties, but that doesn’t legitimize anything, of course. Nor does an assortment of rich people suddenly accepting cannabis as a godsend so that they can add cash stacks to their collection. A few years ago, cannabis wasn’t fashionable. These days, an industry monopoly is a possibility as companies who previously wouldn’t dare whisper about an ancient plant now position themselves for global endeavors.
Ed says there might be 600,000 to 800,000 people smoking every day in New Jersey, his home, and the place that he’s fought most of his battles. Seeing others capitalize on the plant he respects is frustrating to say the least. “The backbone of this industry should be allowed to be involved,” he discussed. “We defied illegality.”
“The black-market guys won the War on Weed,” he continued. “In all wars, the victors are the ones who divvy up the proceeds. And yet, those who declared war, and lost, are now rich from the legal industry.”
Ed’s advocacy hasn’t waned in the face of the opposition. NJWeedman’s Joint blatantly caters to people who use cannabis. His passion accelerated despite having suffered the consequences of being incarcerated. And yet, he’s forced to circumnavigate the legal cannabis industry that he battled for as a rogue, an outlaw. “Maybe if there were 1,000 people like me,” Ed envisioned, “doing what I do, something would change. But I won’t quit, and I’m not going away.”
These days, as cannabis continues its resurgence as a superstar on the world stage, it will be increasingly important to remember the industry’s roots, the early days when propaganda dispelled reality, when parents and grandparents viewed the plant as being of the Devil. Those bold masons advocating for access to cannabis provided the foundation to an industry that’s created jobs for all walks of life, stimulated writhing state economies through sizable tax revenue, and most importantly, has provided a therapeutic alternative for millions of people, bringing hope, health, and happiness to those in need. And that’s a trinity worth fighting for.