Colleen Begley: Angel Of Medical-Marijuana Mercy, Or Drug Dealer
Facedown on the pavement with two pounds of pot in her trunk and a cop punching her in the side, Colleen Begley could have packed her bohemian lifestyle away and called it quits.
The Moorestown native could have dimed out all her longtime friends for a lesser sentence, with the hope of someday returning to a cozy life in that affluent suburb, where she could finish college and get into her family's law business. At the very least, she could have moved to Northern California, where there'd be less heat.
"My parents told me to grow up to be anything but a drug dealer," the 30-year-old medical-marijuana activist said one recent summer afternoon on a dock overlooking a small creek in Burlington County. "I never felt like I was one."
In the eyes of law-enforcement officials, though, Begley is very much a drug dealer, a woman who allegedly picked up a package of "high-grade" marijuana shipped from California to a home in Burlington Township on Feb. 11, then led police on a short chase.
She was charged with possession with intent to distribute, eluding and resisting arrest. Her co-defendant John Claudy, who lived at the home in Burlington, was charged with possession and conspiracy, while Russell Forchion, brother of the infamous Ed "NJ Weedman" Forchion, was charged with conspiracy, accused of acting as a lookout.
Out on bail after spending 11 days in jail, Begley has taken a roundabout route into law, challenging the Garden State's stance on a drug it will soon make available to sick and dying residents, while still prosecuting those arrested with pot as if it were angel dust or Ecstasy.
She feels that public sentiment is on her side, even if prosecutors aren't.
"It does get harder and harder for the state to say you are a drug dealer in this environment," she said. "I've never wanted to go steal money to go buy more weed. It's not a sickness."
No room for home grown?
Former New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine signed the New Jersey Compassionate Use of Medical Marijuana Act into law on his last day in office, and Gov. Chris Christie finally agreed in July to start implementing the program, which will make medical marijuana available at a handful of facilities for doctor-approved patients with dire medical issues.
New Jersey's program will be arguably the strictest in the nation, with no place, at least legally, for a homegrown medical-marijuana merchant like Begley.
"I don't see the network of people like Colleen going away, though" said Chris Goldstein, a spokesman for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws ( NORML ). "If you have a major medical condition, like AIDS or MS, you're lucky to know someone like Colleen."
The biggest issue with Begley's arrest and prosecution, according to her attorney and marijuana activists, is that New Jersey is acknowledging that marijuana has some medical value for "compassionate care relief" while still classifying the plant as a Schedule I narcotic. Schedule I narcotics, according to the DEA, could be habit-forming and "have no currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States." Schedule I includes drugs like LSD and peyote, while cocaine and Oxycodone are both on Schedule II.
"Begley is caught in the middle of the State's transition between attempting to regulate illicit marijuana use and medical marijuana use," Begley's attorney, Dan Rosenberg, wrote in a motion to dismiss charges.
A spokesman for Christie and the state Attorney General's Office said that the state has no plans to change the criminal code.
"The Legislature established a very specific, comprehensive scheme for the restricted medical use of marijuana and for its prescription and distribution in that context," Peter Aseltine, a spokesman for the AG's Office, said in a statement. "It did not consider it necessary to reclassify marijuana in a different schedule."
William Buckman, a civil-rights attorney from Moorestown who is representing Claudy, said that the state's stance is "schizophrenic."
"It's a dinosaur of a law," he said.
Claudy has pleaded not guilty, Buckman said, and was simply an "innocent bystander."
Begley, who claims that she has sold or given marijuana to people with issues ranging from migraines to HIV, is also asking the court for permission to introduce expert testimony about the benefits of medical marijuana.
Waiting on a jury
A confidential informant told police about the marijuana shipment to Claudy's home, on Pinewald Lane in Burlington Township, police reports say, and officers set up surveillance on Feb. 11 to see who was going to pick it up.
While Russell Forchion allegedly acted as a lookout, Begley allegedly picked up the package, put it in her Jeep Wrangler and left.
According to the reports, undercover police motioned for Begley to pull over on Route 130 and made eye contact with her via her rear-view mirror, but they claim that she fled, eventually crashing into an auto-body shop in Burlington City.
Begley claimed that she didn't know that the men were cops and got scared, but once she crashed, she got out, put her hands on her head and got down. One officer, in his written report, agreed. Others said that she resisted and admitted kicking her and striking her in the side "three to four times with a closed fist."
Begley's family couldn't be reached for comment, and she admittedly has a strained relationship with them after multiple arrests for marijuana possession. Although they don't approve of her lifestyle, they're paying her legal fees, lending her a car and sending her back to Rutgers, where she's studying psychology. They're also paying rent for the small, picturesque house she lives in on the wooded banks of the north branch of the Rancocas Creek, in Hainesport.
"I really have been very blessed by my parents," she said on the deck, smoking a joint as long and thick as a pinkie.
Begley lives in that idyllic setting with her two dogs, attending NORML meetings and medical-marijuana events when she can and consulting with Rosenberg often, hoping that her case will go before a jury. She's remarkably relaxed for a woman who could spend more than a decade in prison if convicted.
"I'm not scared of going to prison," she said. "The arrest has killed my love life, though."
NewsHawk: Jim Behr: 420 MAGAZINE
Source: Philadelphia Daily News (PA)
Copyright: 2011 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.
Contact: Feedback to the Philadelphia Daily News - Philadelphia Daily News
Website: Philadelphia Daily News Digital Edition
Details: MAP: Media Directory
Author: Jason Nark