local legends

Jersey's Weedman Is the Hero America Needs

He's a perpetual thumb in the eye of the establishment.

by Alex Norcia; photos by Meron Menghistab
Sep 25 2018, 4:07pm

In "Local Legends," VICE spotlights people famous in the small towns and cities where they live—colourful characters, who, unknown to the wider world, are staples in their communities. Submit your own Local Legend to Alex Norcia, at alex.norcia@vice.com.

Weedman's stereo has been stolen. We're walking—not particularly quickly—through Trenton, in the heart of New Jersey's state capital, to get to a pawnshop. Hours have passed since 11 AM, when Weedman—a 54-year-old Rastafarian named Ed Forchion—first took the lighter attached to his belt loop and ripped the morning's inaugural bowl. He's had several hits since, and it's become one of those August afternoons that's so hot and humid somebody's bound to bring up climate change. He's wearing his signature T-shirt—"NJ Weedman," it reads, in a style reminiscent of Superman's "S"—and a gigantic fake nug hangs from his necklace. He's sweating, and his belly often peaks out, hanging above his pants. We can't move more than a foot without being stopped. Bus drivers honk their horns in recognition. Women shout, "I love you," from across the road. Men in flamboyant suits wrap their arms around his shoulders. Construction workers shake his hand.

"The dude belongs in Hollywood," Buck Malvo, a Trenton resident and local photographer, told me earlier this year.

On a street corner, a clearly inebriated man stops Weedman to chat. Another passerby, a young man, gives him a high-five. Rachel Joyce, a local singer, promises to soon share her newest tune with him. It's as though everyone's a character in a novel, plopped there to greet him. One of Jersey's leading pot crusaders, Weedman has just been released from jail, where he had been held for nearly 400 days on charges of witness tampering in a case stemming from an earlier drug bust. Out two months when we meet, it's his first time downtown since. And on the streets of Trenton, he's a fucking superhero. It's as if he's Jesus on his triumphant entry in Jerusalem. He is the city's martyr, mascot, king.

"Going to a bar in this neighbourhood," he whispers to me, smiling, "is like being a half-naked blonde."

Before his arrest, for nearly two years Weedman had owned and operated the Liberty Bell Temple, his "cannabis church"—where, under what he and others have claimed to be religious protection, medical marijuana patients could gather and smoke together. It was akin, he suggests, to a community center, in a city stricken with gun violence and poverty, and without a single hotel to encourage tourism. Inside his former Eden, now, there are still pot leaf prints adorning the walls, embroidered into the chairs, stitched into the curtains. The "Ten Weed Cannandments" (Number III: "He Who Rolls It Must Spark It") are written, quite clearly and largely, near a prominent doorway. (Prior, he had operated a similar institution in Los Angeles, before the cops put it out of business.) Next door to the Liberty Bell, he also ran a restaurant named the Joint, where parishioners and laypeople alike could indulge in some late-night dining—chicken wings, turkey burgers, fish sandwiches. (Smoking in there, he tells me, was strictly prohibited.) The storefront—the church and the restaurant—stands across the street from city hall.

Clearly, Weedman is a sore spot for local government, something of a perpetual middle finger to the establishment. His popularity stems from this very fact; he's loved here because he is always, undeniably, and unapologetically himself. He does remains so by frequently running for local office, and by his staunch refusal to eat shit. He often represents himself in court. (He is, according to former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, "relentless.") He routinely updates his website (designed in 1998), posts on Facebook, and tweets about his cannabis-related crimes, thumbing his nose at authorities—and popularizing, along the way, the hashtag #NJCAN'TGET12, a reference to his frequent avoidance of conviction through his extensive knowledge of jury nullification. There is, too, a charming irony to his existence: He's so dedicated to relaxing and being left alone that he so rarely sits still. It's his full-time job. He cannot resist fucking with the people who stand in the way of his sole objective, his simplest of pleasures.

Another irony: He's vocally against the legalization efforts that the new governor, Phil Murphy, campaigned on this past winter (the politician said he’d have it done within his first 100 days), and though proposed bills have been stalled in the Senate primarily due to state budget squabbles, it certainly looks like it'll pass eventually. Weedman's trumpeting for a free legal market, not an industry where he says "cannabaggers"—outside interests and business owners with a lot of capital—can shut out mom-and-pop shops like his own. For him, as he tweeted recently, it will be a "WHITE ONLY system of marijuana distribution," and if it should go through—well, he's just going to sell it anyway.

He doesn't want to legalize weed so much as he wants to legalize the way he lives. He argues, in other words, not that he is wrong (say, for smoking bud), but the law is. ("I'm a medical marijuana patient," he tells me, "regardless of the state.") To his friend Dioh Williams, who's helping him relaunch the new and improved Liberty Bell, what Weedman ultimately represents—beneath the sweaty shirt and the dank gem swinging from his neck—is "freedom." He's the personification of "Fuck the Man."

"I heard about Weedman by word-of-mouth," Williams tells me. "I didn't know—I didn't believe he was real."

This, for Weedman, is how it's always been. In the 1980s, he says, he received all of his marijuana-related news from High Times, even sometimes contributing to the outlet. But when the magazine began publishing articles, and running advertisements, about "legal herbs" (a.k.a. "not fucking weed"), he launched a letter-writing campaign, asserting that the editors were betraying their customer base and longtime readers by essentially advocating for fake pot. In November 2015, he avoided prosecution for smoking inside the chambers of city council because, his defense attorney argued, it was "selective prosecution." (He was the only one charged, though he was not the only one to smoke.) He has sued his ex-attorney for malpractice. He has beaten cancer. He's currently in the process of constructing his third "Weedmobile," a van not inconspicuously painted with marijuana leaves. ("If Batman has the Batmobile, how is Weedman not supposed to have a Weedmobile?")

His antagonism is unrelenting—and has been the cause of almost all his troubles, especially now. Between 2015 and 2017, he received more than 20 tickets, he says, from cops trying to shut down his place of worship. They would stake him out, he says, and in April 2016, they raided the Liberty Bell. After that there was a predictably precipitous drop-off, Weedman tells me, of regular visitors. ("They were too scared to come," he says.) And then, one day in March 2017, SWAT entered his bedroom and arrested him while he streamed the whole thing on Facebook Live. He had learned that police had been relying on a confidential informant to try to prove he was illicitly selling and distributing marijuana in the temple. He took to social media to out "the rat," which ultimately brought the witness tampering charge that landed him behind bars. He sat there until this past May, when, previously acquitted him of one count of witness tampering and hung on the other, a jury acquitted him of his last count. Weedman started the trial kneeling in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, and ended it by cheekily inviting the prosecutor, John Boyle, to his victory party. Throughout he wore a suit reminiscent of the Riddler's, only with weed leafs replacing the question marks.

"I'm the Mayweather of pot," he tells me, obviously proud in his ability to represent himself so efficiently.

Now out of the ring, there's more work to be done. His romantic and financial partner, Debi Madaio, a chemo nurse and an active player in his release, continued paying the rent on the temple and restaurant while Weedman was locked up. But there was little upkeep. She stopped paying attention to it. And then someone robbed the joint while Weedman was away.

"The whole thing turned into something we didn't want it to be," Madaio tells me. "We had a crew in here, too, and when he got locked up, they tried to rob everything he had. They actually tried to paint the sign over and take his name off. Everybody thought he was guilty, but—Ed, he's done a lot of shit, but this is one thing he didn't do. And when you're down and out here, people, they don't try to help you—they just try to steal everything you have."

Weedman's suing the city of Trenton for his 16 months in the clink, and has just reopened—albeit slowly and cautiously—both the Liberty Bell Temple and the Joint. He feels good, his jubilant optimism unwavering.

As we enter the pawnshop, someone holds the door open for him. "After you, Weedman," she says, laughing. He thanks her, and saunters in. He scans the walls, the counters. He fist-bumps the patrons and cashiers.

No one has seen his speakers.

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This article originally appeared on VICE US.