Pubdate: Mon, 22 Aug 2011
Source: Philadelphia Daily News (PA)
Copyright: 2011 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc.
Author: Jason Nark


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

She feels that public sentiment is on her side, even if prosecutors

"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

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

"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

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." 
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