New Jersey’s Weed Market Is About to Explode—and Present a Crucial Test

In his Trenton, New Jersey, shop filled with pot, edibles, shrooms, grinders, bongs, and novelty T-shirts, Ed Forchion watched Election Day this year with dismay. Voters in the state were set to issue a verdict on legal weed. Forchion is something of a local marijuana legend: He once tried to change his legal name to “NJWeedMan,” as he’s known professionally. (He was unsuccessful.) He livestreams, often with guests, from inside his marijuana heaven in the state capital, where the façade has his face printed all over it, along with a vinyl decal of a gigantic joint.

© Provided by Slate Ed Forchion at his store in Trenton. Aymann Ismail

Forchion’s shop, NJ Weedman’s Joint, has been here in plain view for years, despite state law forbidding the sale of recreational marijuana. But on Election Day, New Jersey voters amended the state constitution and joined the ranks of the now 15 states that have approved recreational pot use and sales. The measure was broadly popular: More than two-thirds of voters were in favor, a margin higher than in any other state so far, and the amendment is expected to create a pot market second only in size to California’s.

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Many have hailed the voters’ decision, including Gov. Phil Murphy, who championed the measure. But Forchion—who’s run several times for office, including once to represent Jersey’s 12th Congressional District with the Legalize Marijuana party—surprised me when he told me he bitterly opposed the amendment and had voted against it.

His reasoning was simple: He’s certain there will be no place for people like him in the “new” market, or for the other Black sellers who have been targeted by law enforcement for the trade for years. “The question wasn’t for real legalization,” he told me. “Marijuana will still be illegal. But corporate cannabis won’t be.

“I’ve been sitting here selling weed all this time. Now they’re making a new cannabis industry, which gets to sell weed. Like, hell no,” he said.

His shop—on State Street, two doors down from a U.S. federal courthouse, a couple blocks from the governor’s office, literally across the street from City Hall—is not exactly a secret. “They know me. They all know what’s going on. I don’t hide it,” he said. In 2000, Forchion walked right into the state Legislature, dressed in prison garb, and lit a joint. “The prosecutors know that arresting me only gives me a podium to put the state on trial for their systemic racism,” he told me. “They can arrest me for weed all they want, but they won’t get a conviction.”

Well, except for the times they already did. Forchion said he’s been selling weed ever since he returned to civilian life in 1991 after a near-decadelong stint in the military. With the money he made, he bought a tractor trailer and started his own trucking company, but still kept selling weed. In 1997, he was arrested for felony intent to distribute and later sentenced to 10 years in state prison. He was released early, but he’d be back, cycling in and out of the system for marijuana charges and probation violations.

The state has more or less left him alone lately. Does “legalization” mean that’s about to change?

Following the November vote, on Dec. 17, New Jersey legislators passed a 241-page bill to affirm the results and create a legal marijuana market, along with another bill to decriminalize the drug, making way for legal sales. Now the question is how the markets will work. When Murphy promised to legalize recreational marijuana back when he ran in 2018, he billed it specifically as a crucial step toward criminal justice reform and tearing away flawed policy that unfairly targeted Black and brown communities. Some—certainly not Forchion—are hopeful New Jersey will learn from the successes and failures of other states on what many expect to evolve into a billion-dollar industry.

A few states to the north, Massachusetts voted to legalize marijuana in 2016. The state made early, explicit efforts to give priority to so-called equity applicants who had been disproportionately targeted by past bans and enforcement. Initially touted as a potential model for a more just approach, it has not been a success so far. A group of Black entrepreneurs formed a coalition in protest of the failed promises last year, and potential legislative fixes are pending.

In New Jersey, shortly after the election, Murphy appointed Dianna Houenou as the chair for the Cannabis Regulatory Commission. Over the phone, she told me that racial and financial equity will be a top priority. “I want to instill a culture in the commission that prioritizes equity—and that equity is the lens through which we do all of our work, not just a segmented project,” she said.

Houenou has worked for the governor’s office as a senior policy adviser, mostly for criminal justice issues and police reform, and before that, she was a lawyer for the ACLU, where she was a proponent of cannabis legalization as a racial justice issue. Her appointment was welcomed as a positive sign for racial justice in the press.

“There’s been a lot of people in my life who have been caught up in the criminal justice system. I saw their lives derailed,” Houenou told me. “My career is centered around justice, and doing the right thing for people, and eliminating the barriers that inhibit people from thriving,” she said.

Pressed on specifics about the commission’s plans, Houenou was more vague. When I asked her how exactly she was planning to push social justice initiatives, she said, “Where the commission has room to be flexible and advance racial justice, it will.” And when I pressed on how exactly her commission will be run differently than the one in Massachusetts or elsewhere, she said, “New Jersey will prioritize making sure that we are taking the best of what’s happening elsewhere.”

Still, she insisted she understood the stakes. Asked about people like Forchion, who think this new industry will steamroll people with priors like him, she gets it. “It’s a legitimate fear that, if left unabetted, the forces of capitalism and bias will result in select few, mostly white men who will control and profit from a legalized cannabis industry,” she said. “But it’s a concern that you have to worry about only if we don’t take affirmative steps to make sure it doesn’t happen. And we do that by making sure the industry that we set up is one that does let people have a meaningful opportunity to enter the industry regardless of their background, by lowing barriers to entry and prioritizing equity.”

That includes people with marijuana-related convictions like Forchion, she told me.

I wondered how the legalization bills looked to Houenou’s former colleagues at the ACLU, who were a major driver of the effort for legalization, and whose campaign focused on racial justice.

“All of the work that we did was about making sure we were stopping the racial disparity arrests, wasting the hundreds of millions of dollars in police resources every year, stopping the collateral consequences of an arrest that can limit someone’s economic and educational opportunity, and to create new revenue streams for our state,” said ACLU-NJ executive director Amol Sinha, who spearheaded the group’s efforts. “That resonated with voters, clearly.”

Sinha said the ACLU worked on the vote and the subsequent bills with people like Forchion in mind. “The bill creates no barrier for any individual with a criminal record, regardless of the criminal record, from applying for a license,” he said. “The ACLU actually had to fight for that. We wanted to make sure that people with cannabis records and people with any crimes really should be able to participate in the marketplace. And we got it through into the bill.”

Still, Sinha said the current protections for the Ed Forchions of the New Jersey market were not what he’d hoped they would be. “We were working to try to get into the bill some preferences for people with cannabis records,” he said, “because one of the goals here for the lawmakers who have been talking about this is to eradicate the legacy markets, or the illicit markets, and the best way to do that is to legalize in a way that creates some preference for people operating in the unregulated market to come into the regulated market.”

That didn’t quite happen. “They’re not by the current bill, but they should be, in my opinion, given a leg up,” Sinha said. He also noted that some language in an earlier version of the bill routed a portion of the tax income from marijuana toward law enforcement: “We had advocated for money to go to communities hardest hit by the war on drugs for social services, trying to actually improve people’s lives through life-affirming services rather than just directing money towards policing. So we pushed back, we made a lot of noise, and thankfully the Legislature went back to the drawing board.”

The final bill also has workplace-drug-testing provisions Sinha could do without—”hopefully employers will know better than to fire somebody for having THC in their system, but the potential is there,” he said—and a continued prohibition on growing marijuana at home. “There’s going to be people for whom the regulated market is just way too expensive,” he said, “and we won’t be able to provide them with an option if we don’t allow home-grow.”

But overall, he called the bill a solid step. “We testified in support of it,” he said, “but we often at the ACLU hold these positions where we support something but we point out its flaws.” With the bills approved, the Cannabis Regulatory Commission under Houenou will work on setting up the market, with the first commercial dispensaries expected by 2022.

© Aymann Ismail Aymann Ismail

Forchion is, unsurprisingly, unmoved by the legislation. I visited him at his store recently in Trenton to check in with him. He spends his days in his shop smoking and selling his product, streaming live about the benefits of cannabis and the harms of a legalized marijuana industry. He remains unhopeful that he’ll have any place in the New Jersey’s system. “They won’t listen. I don’t have enough money to be taken seriously,” he told me. “Marijuana has always been a countercultural thing. Now corporations that have LLC behind their name with millionaire CEOs will be who gets to sell it. I went to prison for doing that.”

He’s been here 15 years, and it shows. The complex includes a restaurant called “The Joint” that offers “4.20 specials” and CBD smoothies. (I recommend the mango.) Another chamber inside the building serves as a Rastafarian temple called the Liberty Bell Temple III. There’s a lounge area, and cardboard cutouts of Forchion and Donald Trump next to a portrait of Malcolm X. Further inside, jars filled with different strains of cannabis line a glass display. A jar of shake, the crumbs from the bottom of other containers, is sold at a discount.

The place looks and feels like a full-fledged cannabis dispensary, like ones I’ve visited in California and Colorado. Forchion is generous with his time, and he walked me and other customers through every detail of the strains available. He typically invites people to try some product and enjoy it in his temple. For now, because of COVID-19 concerns, he asks that you light up outside.

Forchion tells me his sales are up, despite the economic storm brought on by the pandemic. I asked him whether he would be worried about losing any business with legal cannabis shops destined to pop up. He confidently told me no. “That’s what they’re attempting to do by setting up these cannabis corporations and getting the customers that already come to us to go to them,” he said. “But, costwise, and qualitywise, you can’t compete with the black market.”

I wondered if there was any version of legalization Forchion could get behind. He had some ideas.

“What they should do is have reefer reparations. People who have felonies who want to be in this industry should not have to apply for a license,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, I got my license with my 1,200 days I spent in prison, you know? I spent my 1,200 days in jail. That was my license fee.”

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