Mar 13, 2016

'Weedman' says closing pot temple violates religious freedom

March 9, 2016

Ed Forchion, a pro-marijuana activist known as NJ Weedman, stands in front of his Weedman's Joint restaurant Monday, March 7, 2016, in Trenton, N.J. After years of legal fights over marijuana from coast to coast, NJ Weedman appeared to be going legit with a new restaurant in New Jersey's capital city. But after Trenton officials shutdown the attached cannabis "temple" Saturday night for operating too late at night, Forchion says he's headed back to court. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)
TRENTON, N.J. (AP) — After battling the legal system on two coasts and spending time in and out of prison, New Jersey's loudest champion of marijuana went legit last year when he opened up a restaurant across from city hall in this state's capital city.

Now, he's headed back to court.

Ed Forchion, better known as NJ Weedman, said Wednesday that Trenton police infringed on his religious rights after shutting down the cannabis temple attached to his restaurant for operating too late at night last weekend.

He has filed an injunction in federal court to keep his temple open after 11 p.m. That's when many of his 600 congregants gather, some to smoke marijuana on a property that includes a large white cross festooned with ornamental marijuana leaves.

Police cleared out his "cannabis church" early Saturday because of a city ordinance that limits a business's hours.

"I call it a midnight mass," Forchion said. "I grew up in the Baptist church and have been to plenty of midnight services and midnight revivals. I should have the same rights as the Shiloh Baptist Church."

Forchion often campaigns for political office under the banner of marijuana legalization. And he's been on a long crusade in the courts, claiming that marijuana laws infringe upon his Rastafarian religion and unfairly discriminate against black people.

Forchion filed a petition this week with the U.S. Supreme Court to challenge his 2010 conviction for marijuana possession. Previous efforts in New Jersey's state courts have failed.

"It's a long shot, but long shots do come in," said Forchion's attorney John Vincent Saykanic.

Forchion's temple and his adjacent restaurant, NJ Weedman's Joint, were his way of starting a legitimate business last summer. He had spent time in and out of prison for marijuana possession and sometimes sold the drug. In 2012, federal agents in California raided his pot farm, confiscating 600 plants.

The restaurant's clocks are all stuck at the time of 4:20. And the joint offers $4.20 specials that include the "Fully Baked Burger." For $7.10, customers can get the "Budz Nugz," grilled salmon nuggets over a bed of mixed greens.

"I'm promoting peace and love in a violent city," Forchion said. "It's the marijuana culture. We're much more likely to give something to you than take something from you."

The temple, however, has drawn Forchion back under the gaze of police. Trenton police Lt. Stephen Varn said that "numerous citizen complaints in the area, including shots fired" prompted officers to clear out the temple.

But Forchion said no shots were ever fired in or around the temple.

Varn said police also are investigating whether the temple is actually a church or a business.

The New Jersey Division of Taxation said that Forchion's temple is registered as a for-profit entity. But Forchion disputed that, saying the paperwork lists its purpose as being a "cannabis church." He also said it's a subsidiary of a similar temple he owned in California.

Forchion said he will refile the paperwork if he has to. But he said the recent shutdown of his temple is an unneeded distraction as he petitions the U.S. Supreme Court.

"I've had a quiet year and I'm looking to do big things," Forchion said. "And now they want to squash me."

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