PW Exclusive: DEA Takes Down N.J. Weedman's California Pot Operation
By Michael Alan Goldberg
Posted Dec. 23, 2011
The long, strange saga of Ed "NJ Weedman" Forchion—marijuana folk hero and New Jersey weed activist-turned-California weed capitalist—has taken a turn for the worse.
On Tuesday, Dec. 13, Forchion was driving in Los Angeles on his way to sign a lease for a second location for his Liberty Bell Temple—the popular Hollywood Boulevard pot dispensary he's operated for more than three years—when he was pulled over by an LAPD squad car. Within a few moments, agents from the Drug Enforcement Agency joined in on the stop. Forchion was put in handcuffs and informed that the DEA was commencing a raid of the Liberty Bell Temple—as well as Forchion's apartment and his marijuana grow operation, located inside a nondescript Los Angeles warehouse—on suspicion of violating federal drug laws.
While California law allows medicinal marijuana dispensaries and related growing facilities (and Forchion was licensed by the state to operate such facilities), federal laws that prohibit such operations supercede state law, and the Obama administration has initiated a crackdown on medical marijuana facilities in California this year.
Federal authorities seized all of the marijuana, money, computers, phones, security cameras and paperwork at the Liberty Bell Temple and dismantled the entire shop; turned his apartment upside down and took more computers, cameras, phones, videotapes and paperwork; and removed 600 marijuana plants from Forchion's grow facility, in the process smashing lights and other grow equipment and seizing four dogs belonging to Forchion and sending them to the pound. The feds also froze his bank accounts. Forchion was detained for about five hours and then released without being charged.
"They told me I was lucky I didn't have 1,000 plants or I would've gotten an automatic federal charge, and I'd probably be sitting in jail for two years waiting for trial," says Forchion, calling PW on his girlfriend's phone from his trashed apartment, where he returned yesterday after "going off the grid" for a week following the raid.
Still, Forchion believes it's "just a matter of time" before he's arrested on federal charges. According to DEA marijuana trafficking penalties, a first-time offender convicted of possessing 1,000 plants is hit with a mandatory sentence of no less than 10 years in prison; a conviction on possession of 100 to 999 plants means a minimum of five years.
Forchion says that his whole marijuana operation—in which he says he'd invested more than $300,000 over the past three years—has gone up in smoke, and that as of last night he was down to his last 10 bucks after splurging on a Grand Slam breakfast at Denny's yesterday morning.
"I came here from Jersey [four years ago] with 500 bucks in my pocket and a promise from my mom that if I failed, she'd buy a plane ticket to come back," says Forchion, whose weed-fueled exploits over the last 15 years—as detailed in a PW cover story in October—earned him the title of "Superhero of the Potheads."
"I feel like I was doing really well," he sighs.
Last night, he was trying to come up with the $500 necessary to get his four dogs out of the pound. His long-running website, NJWeedman.com, had been down since the raid, replaced by a message from his service provider saying the site was “suspended," but it was back up as of yesterday afternoon—Forchion didn't know if the DEA had something to do with that. Meanwhile, he says, the 17 people he employed at the Liberty Bell Temple and grow site are now out of work—"right before Christmas, too"—but that none were detained because he called the shop as he was being pulled over to warn them of the impending raid, and everyone immediately evacuated the premises.
Forchion says that DEA officers who detained him last week told him they'd had him under surveillance since early November. According to the federal search warrant obtained by PW, DEA agents received a tip in August from a confidential informant about the whereabouts of Forchion's grow operation, which Forchion insists he's kept a secret from everyone except his closest business associates.
"Someone ratted on me," says Forchion. "I guess I have a hater amongst my people or something."
But Forchion believes he—and not the many hundreds of medical marijuana operations that continue to operate freely in Los Angeles—was specifically targeted for the raid because authorities in New Jersey "sicced the government on me." According to the warrant, Burlington County Assistant District Attorney Michael Luciano—who's prosecuting Forchion on a marijuana possession with intent to distribute charge in a trial slated for April—had multiple conversations with the DEA in September and November discussing the N.J. case against Forchion. Luciano also told the DEA that Forchion may be facing additional charges for mailing small vials of marijuana to Luciano, Gov. Chris Christie and more than a dozen other N.J. officials between April and September of this year. Forchion says it was a stunt aimed at encouraging the recipients to "chill out" over weed laws.
Forchion claims DEA agents told him the raid was politically motivated. "They didn't hide it," says Forchion. "[A DEA agent] said that I apparently pissed off New Jersey state officials and they called the Justice Department. He said, 'You should just shut down, you should close down, that's what the politicians want, they want you to shut up. Are you going to shut up?' There was no secret to it."
Neither the DEA nor Luciano's office responded to phone calls seeking comment.
"It's the whole squeaky wheel thing—I guess I was too squeaky," says Forchion, who says he has no regrets about mailing weed to the governor and others. "I know what I'm gonna hear: 'Well, what did you expect?' And to be honest with you, that may have played a little role in this," he laughs.
"I did kind of push the line, and I got some pushback," he continues. "But I'm still the Weedman, you know? I mean, without trying to sound goofy, I do feel like I'm the Martin Luther King of marijuana."
Potential federal charges aside, Forchion's also concerned that he's so broke at the moment that he won't be able to afford a plane ticket back to New Jersey for a mandatory Jan. 3 pre-trial hearing for his April court date—if he misses that, he fears, a warrant for his arrest could be issued. "I'm sure Luciano is gonna think, 'This is great—he doesn't have the money to fly back and forth,'" says Forchion. "He knows this was a big disruption in my life."
And beyond the immediate mess he's in, Forchion has no idea what he's going to do moving forward. "The way my life was last week is over. I'm the Weedman. I never wanted to be called the Weedless Man, and right now that's what I appear to be. I can't go back to New Jersey. What am I gonna do, go back to driving a truck? Nobody's gonna hire me, and I don't have money to get my own truck back on the road."
"After what happened [last week] I thought, should I quietly disappear?" he continues. "And then I thought, no. I have some people going, 'You gonna open back up?' I want to, but I don't know. I've been shut down and knocked off my high horse. There's gonna be people who are like, 'You idiot, you did it to yourself.' But either way, I'm still gonna have my day in Burlington County court [in April] and I'm gonna win, and if the government comes after me I'm gonna beat them, too. I still want to be the Roe v. Wade of marijuana legalization. I do feel that that's my destiny."