After years of calling on New Jersey to legalize weed, Garden State activists, entrepreneurs and medical marijuana patients took a victory lap Tuesday — celebrating outside of the Statehouse by lighting joints and taking a sigh of relief.
4/20, the unofficial weed holiday of unknown origins, has a new meaning in New Jersey this year. Two months ago, Gov. Phil Murphy signed laws that decriminalize up to six ounces of marijuana and outline a legal cannabis industry for people 21 and older.
But work remains both to set up the industry and ease access for medical marijuana patients, who have long complained about product shortages and high prices. There’s still stigma, too; many cities and towns are contemplating ordinances that would ban weed businesses in their borders, even though nearly municipality in the state voted in favor of a ballot question to legalize marijuana.
“We’re beyond legalization, and we’re now at normalization,” said Ed DeVeaux, president of the New Jersey CannaBusiness Association.
Dozens of people, many of them medical marijuana patients, held an afternoon-long festival and rally outside of the Statehouse. They passed joints and grabbed bags of Funyuns and Doritos from a table as a DJ played music, drowning out construction sounds from the Statehouse renovation.
Patients can consume medical marijuana in many public places aside from school grounds, beaches and parks. That gives them broad protection to smoke in the capital complex full of New Jersey state troopers. But a handful of people at the rally said they were smoking marijuana they bought from drug dealers rather than dispensaries, citing high prices and concerns about reports of mold in the regulated plants as reasons to rely on the illicit market.
Patients also want the right to grow their own cannabis at home. New Jersey is one of the only states that blocks even medical marijuana patients from having plants of their own.
“We can’t afford our medicine,” said Edward “Lefty” Grimes of the patient advocacy group Sativa Cross. “They need to fix that.”
There’s momentum to change home grow laws, and two lawmakers have introduced that would allow people to grow a small number of plants at home.
Growing marijuana is not the easiest task, and many patients would prefer to shop at dispensaries. But there’s a cohort who do grow their own.
A 22-year-old at the rally who did not give his name said he grows around two or three plants typically. Even though he is a registered medical patient, he fears police could arrest him, and hides the plants even from friends.
“I’m so paranoid about it,” he said.
There are others operating on the fringes of the law.
Daniel Kessel parked his white pickup truck bearing his company’s name, Bud hub, along State Street Tuesday. He hopes to get a license to grow and sell in the legal weed industry, but for now, he’s “gifting” cannabis — people buy stickers, and he delivers weed along with the order.
Without regulations in place, there’s no way for him to conduct business entirely legally. He said he fills about 400 orders a week anyway, many for patients who will not pay the higher prices in the medical dispensaries.
“Until that changes, the black market will thrive,” Kessel said. “Quality sells.”
Legal sales are months away in the regulated market, but they were in full swing at NJ Weedman’s Joint, Ed Forchion’s restaurant and smoke shop a mile down State Street.
Some 300 people had already passed through the restaurant by mid-afternoon, filling the colorful rooms and mingling amidst Rastafarian decor, where Forchion has framed and saved newspaper pages about him and his business. He is the most recognizable face and loudest voice in the state’s illegal market, known for his restaurant boldly situation near the federal courthouse and a white SUV emblazoned with the words “Pot Trooper” and a logo that mimics that of State Police.
In his shop’s adjacent yard, several vendors had set up, selling weed-infused cookies, Rice Krispies and cereals, all packaged carefully and labeled from various small businesses.
A man checked people’s bags and swiped a metal detector in front of them as they entered. The peaceful party was BYOB — bring your own bud, and several groups sat in lawn chairs, smoking and talking.
“How can you say what we’re doing is wrong?” Debi Madaoi, who owns the restaurant with Forchion, said gesturing to the happy crowd.
Forchoin has had several run-ins with police, the most recent earlier this year as he drove his iconic SUV outside of the city. But police in Trenton largely leave him alone now, and they had not come by the restaurant as of 3:30 p.m. Tuesday.
He advocated for a more progressive legalization effort that would legitimize the existing marijuana market, like himself, instead of giving licenses to big companies. He’s dissatisfied with the law passed and does not have a license to sell weed. That hasn’t stopped him over the years.
“I’m not 100% down with the bill, but that’s not what this is about,” Forchion said. “This is like a victory lap. The perception is: legalization is here.”