TRENTON — This isn’t legal.
Recreational marijuana, as of last week, is legal in New Jersey, but what Ed Forchion is pulling off at his restaurant on East State Street — or, rather, down the alley and behind the restaurant — is something entirely different.
On a recent day, a dozen or more people were crammed into a small hallway behind NJ Weedman’s Joint, the restaurant bearing the moniker he’s worn as a legal weed advocate the last 20 years. Forchion’s customers hunched over to peer into a glass case filled with individual jars of marijuana flower.
On the shelves behind the displays were small, sealed, pre-weighed bags — $40 to $60 for a one-eighth ounce of marijuana or three of any strain for $100. Whole ounces of pot went for $250 to $350, anywhere from $50 to $150 less than what the state’s licensed medical marijuana dispensaries are charging.
At the end of the hallway two dealers sat at tables with the kind of plastic containers normally used to store leftovers but adapted to peddle pot as people walked into the warm, unmistakably skunk-smelling inside or back outside into the cold.
This is the black market for marijuana, thriving more than ever — even after New Jersey became the 13th state to legalize weed for adult use. And the black market, still, isn’t legal — but Forchion isn’t going anywhere.
He doesn’t have a license to sell weed, and he doesn’t intend to put together the capital, investors, fees, or the hundred-page application to get one. By his thinking, the prison time he’s served for marijuana offenses — he also spent over a year in the Mercer County Correction Center awaiting trial on charges that were eventually dropped — should qualify him alone.
“If you give me my 1,200 days back in jail, I’ll pay for a license — or if you want to just give me a license, so be it,” Forchion said. “But I can’t jump through those hoops, those corporate obstacles. I can’t make it.
“I can sell weed all day. I’ve been selling weed for 30 years. That’s not the problem.”
The problem, as Forchion sees it, is this: Now that marijuana is legal in New Jersey, the state will begin the likely year-long process of awarding licenses for dispensaries, where anyone over 21 years old will be able to walk in and buy legal weed.
But talk to any leader in the cannabis industry about what it takes to get a license to sell marijuana, and they’ll mention how cutthroat the process is. Licenses are referred to as “golden tickets,” as if their holders are guaranteed success — but only if they have the hundreds of thousands in capital necessary even to be considered.
And if the black marketeers are left to the side? They’ll likely just keep doing what they’ve always been doing: Selling weed.
“The black market will only go away if you include us,” Forchion said. “You’re not going to get rid of the black market by excluding the black market.”
Jiles Ship, president of the New Jersey chapter of the National Organization for Black Law Enforcement Executives, shared that view.
“It’s not because people don’t have the ability to run a business. It’s because they’re not given the opportunity,” Ship said. “When you take those opportunities from people, they still have to make a living. They still have to feed their families. That’s what drives the black market.”
He added: “Unless you provide them opportunities to exist and make money in a legitimate way, you’re always going to have the black market.”
Forchion sees a different downside when thinking about what legal weed looks like without NJ Weedman: “These every day, citizen-type dispensaries, there’s flavor to it. There’s family.
“You go to the corporate places (in states where such legal dispensaries are up and running), you can’t touch the weed,” Forchion said. “You can’t smoke the weed. There’s no music playing. There’s nothing.
“This is what should be going on in every neighborhood. There should be little guys.”
‘Stop kicking me’
Dianna Houenou, appointed chair of the Cannabis Regulatory Commission, acknowledged the skepticism voiced by Forchion and others who believe they’ll be left out.
“People expect to be held back because of their prior entanglement in the criminal justice system,” she said. “That’s why we have to keep pushing reforms, not just in the cannabis context or even in criminal justice.
“We just have to look at people in a different way.”
One potential solution could be the “microbusiness” licenses the CRC will issue, Houenou said. Those licenses are designed for entrepreneurs who want only to run a small operation or need the room and experience to grow into a full-fledged cannabis business.
Microbusinesses, which come with limits on total employees and how much marijuana is sold or handled, will make up 10% of all licenses issued, according to the laws.
But even microbusiness licenses seem far-fetched for many of the people involved in the black market.
“It’s impossible. They talk about social equity, but it’s just so bare-faced how they’ve been kicking us this whole time and they’re still kicking us,” said David, 31, selling marijuana by the door of NJ Weedman’s Joint.
The comments of David and other dealers went viral when the USA TODAY NETWORK in March 2019 visited a black market “pop up” event, where a handful of pot dealers converted an otherwise legal business into a black market marijuana bazaar – a literal smoke-filled room in the Trenton suburbs — for one night only.
“People want legalization until they get here and see what the black market has to offer,” David said at the time. “They see that what we have is cheaper than legalized weed, that it’s much better. You can change their mind.”
Forchion has been openly advertising the marijuana sold out of NJ Weedman’s Joint – across the street from Trenton City Hall. And in recent weeks, even more black market pot dealers have followed suit, calling him for advice on how to open actual storefronts instead of simply relying on pop-up sales events.
“People are coming to me from all over the state, like I’m the example,” Forchion said. “This is my business model, and it’s working. Nobody’s bothering me. And that’s the model a lot of these little places are doing.”
David, on the other hand, is dipping his toes into the cannabis industry — the legal one — but not in New Jersey.
In Oregon, he’s been networking with cannabis companies, using his social media presence to market their products in exchange for an introduction or an open door to other contacts. He believes he’ll be able to get a commercial grower’s license with $50,000 and a few investors.
“They introduce me to other people in the industry, give me different perspectives on where I’d like to invest my money,” David said. “It’s a cakewalk.”
Now, he has his eyes on Oklahoma, which has a booming medical marijuana market that topped $345 million in revenue in 2019, according to the Oklahoma Tax Commission. (New Jersey’s medical marijuana dispensaries had just $53 million in revenue in 2018, according to the Department of Health.)
David thinks Oklahoma will legalize weed sooner rather than later but doesn’t want to wait: A license to grow medical marijuana there commercially costs $2,500. In New Jersey, the 2019 request for applications for dispensaries — the Department of Health is yet to issue a grower-specific permit — cost $2,000 just to apply, even if the application was rejected.
Getting such a license in New Jersey is out of the question, David said. While back in Trenton, he’s more than happy to just peddle marijuana on the black market.
“I’m an activist. I’m an entrepreneur. I pay taxes,” David said. “It’s at the point now where they need to stop kicking me.”
Houenou recognized the strains that funding could have on entrepreneurs like David: “We look at other legal jurisdictions and it can be really damn expensive, and there are a lot of communities that historically had not had access to traditional lending markets.”
The state’s five cannabis commissioners haven’t even met each other yet, let alone drafted the requirements for license applications.
But the industry has caught up to the issue, she sad, noting how some investment groups specifically seek out Black entrepreneurs: “People area recognizing this as a need, how we need better ways to support aspiring entrepreneurs — whether it’s ini the cannabis context or not.”
Ship, from the Black law enforcement executives’ group, thinks people like David will inevitably become part of the legal industry in New Jersey — but it won’t happen quickly.
Instead, they’ll be transitioned in as people become more familiar with marijuana as a legal substance — the same way alcohol transitioned from Prohibition-era speakeasies to liquor stores on every corner, and from basement home breweries to multimillion-dollar craft breweries.
“But that’s not going to happen overnight,” he said. “And if people don’t get a fair opportunity in this business, if there aren’t opportunities for diverse groups of people – specifically the African American community – you’re not going to see a significant impact on that reduction in the black market.”
Wink wink, nudge nudge
Murphy finally signed into law last week a three-bill package that legalized the taxation, sale and purchase of marijuana and decriminalized the use and possession of up to 6 oz.
The only problem? Unless you have a medical marijuana card, there’s nowhere to actually purchase weed — at least, legally.
It could be over a year before recreational dispensaries actually open in the Garden State, as the Cannabis Regulatory Commission, has yet to meet let alone develop guidelines, begin accepting applications or issue licenses for dispensaries.
But the black market isn’t waiting for the state to get its act together.
“I never sold marijuana in my life before January 1 — and, obviously, I’m still not,” said Sam Gindi, choosing his words carefully while describing his baked goods delivery service, NJ Green Direct.
“We’re just selling regular cookies; we’re not selling anything else. Any cannabis the drivers give away, that’s their own.”
That cannabis, however, is advertised on a website. For $55 to $340, an NJ Green Direct driver — they’re independent contractors, Gindi said — will deliver a specified number of fresh-baked cookies or other baked goods to your front door.
They’re not laced with marijuana, they’re just really good cookies that happen to cost about 14 to 85 times the price of a pack of Oreos.
As a “gift”, the driver may throw in anywhere from one-eighth ounce to an ounce of high-quality marijuana, with strains like Black Diamond, Pablo Mint and Wedding Cake advertised on the company’s website.
But nothing is guaranteed, according to the company: “They may possibly be given as a free gift at the drivers’ discretion,” its website states.
NJ Green Direct is taking advantage of a loophole in the marijuana legalization laws that allow anyone to “transfer without remuneration” up to 1 ounce of weed, though the law specifically states it must be for “non-promotional, non-business purposes.”
You can invite a friend over for an ounce of pot, the same way you can invite a friend over for a beer. And, the thinking goes, if restaurants offer diners a breath mint on their way out, why can’t NJ Green Direct drivers give out pot?
This wink-wink, nudge-nudge marijuana business model has become popular in Washington, D.C., where marijuana is legal to grow, possess and use, but illegal to sell — there are no dispensaries.
But Gindi, 26, doesn’t know what’s next.
His business thrived during the six-week period between Jan. 1 and Feb. 22, when Gindi believed, so he says, that the voter-backed constitutional amendment to legalize weed took effect, despite Murphy’s not signing the regulations into law.
But like others already staking their claim in the cannabis industry, the West Long Branch resident doesn’t know if he’ll ever be able to break his way into getting a license, whether it’s to deliver marijuana from licensed dispensaries to its customers or open his own retail operation himself.
“Honestly, I’d love to go legit, to be official and not deal with any issues,” he said. “But there’s a $1 million barrier to entry. I can’t afford anywhere near that. And if they want to keep it like that, there are going to be people like me who are going to keep popping up.
“There’s going to be a huge gray market for people who can’t get in.”
‘They know I’m right’
From November through January, there were over 6,000 arrests for possession of less than 50 grams of marijuana in New Jersey, despite state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal’s calling for officers to practice “broad discretion” when enforcing marijuana laws after the ballot question passed.
On Feb. 11, Forchion became one of those arrested.
Police in Wanaque, Passaic County, stopped Forchion while driving his “PotTrooper,” a Chevy Suburban converted to look like a New Jersey State Police SUV, citing an illegal green light shining on the license plate.
Police smelled marijuana in the car and searched, finding an ounce of pot and less than 5 grams of hashish, Forchion said. Forchion and a passenger were charged with possession of less than 50 grams of marijuana, intent to distribute marijuana and conspiracy to distribute marijuana — confiscating $9,000 from the vehicle, as well.
Forchion is confident he’ll be acquitted if the charges aren’t dismissed outright. Under the bills signed into law last week, not only would the possession of that much marijuana be legal but the search itself would have been prohibited.
“I want to be that precedent case that stops smell searches for weed in New Jersey,” he said.
It’s been a busy start to 2021 for Forchion. In January, Murphy filed a motion to dismiss the federal lawsuit Forchion filed against him. It argued that the “deceptive” ballot question approved by voters legalizing marijuana only allowed a “Caucasian cannabis cartel” to sell marijuana.
In his response to Murphy’s motion, Forchion argued his rights were being violated by the ballot question and its enabling legislation, since continuing to sell weed would leave him open to prosecution. The motion is still pending.
“When Gov. Murphy describes guys like me as the ‘bad guys,’ and he wants the ‘good guys’ in — what?,” Forchion said. “Ninety percent of the state’s population right now gets their weed from guys like me. All those people are buying weed from us, the good guys, the black market.”
Every so often, police officers will stop by NJ Weedman’s Joint to order a burger or wings from the restaurant and make comments about how “there’s a funny smell,” acknowledging that they’re well aware of the black market operating in full swing just a few feet away.
But they never do anything about it, Forchion said.
“It’s because I’m right,” he said. “They know I’m right.”