Ed Forchion, the marijuana activist known as the New Jersey Weedman, became a fixture at the Statehouse in Trenton by setting up camp in his Weed Mobile and indulging in his favorite cause. Once, he lit up on the Assembly floor.
The dreadlocked Weedman is emerging as less of a maverick with a poll this week showing more than two-thirds of New Jerseyans favor lessening penalties and Democratic lawmakers floating a measure to let citizens sell and use pot. While Chris Christie has promised to veto any bill that makes the drug legal, as Colorado and Washington have, Democrats see an opportunity to rally support -- perhaps more so because of the Republican governor’s opposition.
“It’s good politics as well as good policy,” said Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, a Trenton Democrat pressing for easing pot laws. “It would certainly motivate people to get involved in the political process.”
Senator Nicholas Scutari, a Linden Democrat sponsoring a legalization bill, says pot should be treated like beer. Scutari and colleagues say that would raise tax receipts while cutting the costs of enforcement and imprisonment in a state that’s missed revenue targets three years in a row.
When Colorado began allowing sales in January, the state estimated it would make $67 million in revenue this year. That climbed to $107 million as sales soared. New Jersey could take in twice as much, Scutari said.
“You’re seeing a growing realization that this is the reality, this is a fact of life,” said Scutari, 45, who said he doesn’t use pot. “Marijuana is the cash cow of the illegal drug trade. It’s so widely utilized by people that there’s an understanding prohibition is a joke.”
Christie, a 51-year-old former federal prosecutor, has called the U.S. war on drugs a failure because of the expense of “warehousing” nonviolent offenders in prisons. Yet he’s said there’s no way he’ll make pot legal.
“If people want legalized marijuana in this state let them elect a new governor because it’s not going to happen under this one,” Christie said during an April 3 town-hall meeting in Sayreville. “I’m not going to turn our state into a place people fly into, to get high, just for the tax revenue.”
An October Gallup Poll showed 58 percent of Americans favoring legalization, up 10 percentage points from a year earlier. In New Jersey, while support is less, 49 percent, it’s stronger than ever: up 14 percentage points from 2011, according to a Rutgers-Eagleton poll released April 15. Two-thirds of residents support lower penalties for pot use.
Gallup has tracked opinions on marijuana since 1969, when just 12 percent of the nation supported legalization. Approval grew throughout the 1970s and plateaued in the 1990s, finally reaching the 50 percent mark in 2011.
“People are really coming around to the idea,” said Erik Altieri, a spokesman for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. ’
The Weedman was in New Jersey’s vanguard.
A Pemberton resident, Forchion has been speaking out about drug laws since the 1990s. His stunts to draw attention to the issue include smoking pot in front of the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, trying to change his name to NJWeedman.com, and runs for governor and Congress. He’s preparing for an April 20 rally at the Statehouse, a “protest/puff session.”
Forchion splits his time between California and New Jersey, recently traveling cross-country in the Weed Mobile, a multicolored 1986 Chevrolet van. Outside his lawyers’ office in Clifton last month, Forchion kneeled under a tree and lit a joint. Christie, he said, is “absolutely on the wrong side of history.”
Other states are going the way of the Weedman. Washington and Colorado voters made recreational use legal in 2012. Alaska will ask voters in August. Eighteen other states and Washington D.C. have considered or are considering bills to decriminalize pot or make it legal, according to the Marijuana Policy Project, an advocacy group in the nation’s capital.
With the fiscal rationale resonating with younger voters, the scandal over lane closings at the George Washington Bridge is emboldening Christie’s opponents, said Brigid Harrison, a professor of law and government at Montclair State University.
“Democrats see momentum on their side,” Harrison said. “It’s sort of a no-holds-barred attitude in terms of being antagonistic toward the Christie administration.”
A bill sponsored by Gusciora would make possession of less than 15 grams akin to a traffic summons and subject to fines of $150. The measure has 18 co-sponsors, a quarter of the Assembly, including three Republicans.
Scutari’s legislation, introduced March 27, would legalize pot and allow the state to tax it. Possession would be only for those over 21, with penalties for driving under the influence.
Scutari said he can outlast Christie.
“He’s not going to be the governor forever,” Scutari said. “When you look at the sheer economic numbers involved, he’s going to be hard-pressed to say why we shouldn’t be involved.”