High Heaven

Chisago County says a local rabbi took her campaign to legalize medicinal marijuana one toke over the line

Rabbi Ariel Pedersen would never say the devil made her do it. But the rabbi is certain that something mystical happened one Friday afternoon in early October, as she was driving to her modest farmhouse in North Branch, 40 miles north of the Twin Cities. Pedersen insists that as she cruised along County Road 8 and saw an oncoming Chisago County sheriff's car, she felt a force on her leg, causing her foot to press down harder on the accelerator. Faster and faster she went, and as her Ford Bronco whizzed past the cops, she saw the patrol car whip around, lights aglow in the autumn sun.

It was, she believes, an act of God.

The way Pedersen remembers it, she had gone for a walk in the woods on a lot owned by a friend and came across a number of large marijuana plants. She clipped four at their base, stuffed them into two black plastic bags, tossed them in the back of her SUV, and set out on a "beautiful fall afternoon drive." After sheriff's deputy Sgt. Doug Henning pulled her over, she recalls, the officer told her he smelled marijuana emanating from the driver's-side window, which was cracked open. Pedersen told the deputy that she had "two huge bags of pot" in the Bronco.

Sweet leaf: Rabbi Ariel Pedersen plays chicken with Minnesota's marijuana laws
Geoffrey P. Kroll
Sweet leaf: Rabbi Ariel Pedersen plays chicken with Minnesota's marijuana laws

And then, the self-proclaimed Rabbi of Doobie says, she felt an ethereal thrill. "I heard God's voice saying, 'Fear not, I am with you,'" she recalls, "and I thought, 'Cool. We're doing time together.'"

Perhaps God wasn't counting on the possibility of doing quite so much time. A report from the Chisago County Attorney's Office verifies the more earthly details of Pedersen's tale, but contends that the pot plants in the back seat were eventually found to contain more than 529 grams of marijuana--over a pound, and more than 12 times the amount state law says adds up to a felony. As a consequence, Pedersen faces a possession charge punishable by up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine, as well as a misdemeanor charge of possessing marijuana in a motor vehicle, which could earn her another 90 days of time and a $1,000 fine.

None of this fazes Pedersen, who claims that she smokes marijuana for medicinal reasons, an assertion duly noted in the criminal complaint filed against her on March 21. She is, she says, anxious to be convicted and take whatever punishment is given to her in court to illustrate how absurd it is that marijuana remains outlawed. "I'm not asking to legalize it to be stoned; that's blasphemy," she explains, standing in a chicken coop on her farm. "Personally, I believe all plants should be legal, but I'm not going to get into that. This is about people dying, and they are suffering."

Though the debate over legalizing the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes is hardly new, Gov. Jesse Ventura's pro-pot stance seems to have rejuvenated interest in the issue. In fact, an April forum held at the state Department of Health in St. Paul was attended by medicinal marijuana activists, members of the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws, Ventura, and a number of state employees. Jan Malcolm, commissioner of the health department, says the state sponsored the conference in the hope of encouraging more scientists to study medicinal effects of marijuana, research that's legal under a little-known 1980 state law.

But few seem ready to approach the issue with the zeal and vigilance of Pedersen, who also attended the forum. For years, she says, her life has been complicated by mysterious illnesses that paralyze her hands and legs, and medicines that make her nauseated and give her headaches. Pedersen suffers from Raynaud's phenomenon, a syndrome that affects roughly five percent to ten percent of the population, mostly women. It constricts blood flow to hands, feet, fingers, and toes. She also says she has a connective-tissue disease that causes muscle spasms and cramps. Conventional treatments, she says, have grown tiresome. "I'm not going to have needles shoved into my thighs anymore," she says of the injected painkillers she has taken for ten years. "Anyone who does that can kiss my rabbinical tush. What the cops did that day was take away my medicine."

A stout 42-year-old woman with straight red hair and impossibly green eyes, Pedersen wears a diamond in her left nostril, and a necklace adorned with a Messianic symbol--a combination of a Roman cross and the Star of David. She answers the phone with a raspy "Shalom," and concludes each call with, "Have a blessed day." In her chicken coop, she talks to the Polish chickens, guinea hens, and a single pheasant in the same manner, calling the birds by nicknames. She raises the chickens only for eggs; bear meat, she says, is the best food on the planet. (She has a friend who traps the animals.) "Everything in life must be attached to where it came from to survive," she says. "That's why I believe in the relationship between God's image and man. God is the author of ass-kicking, and I am just the vessel."

Pedersen was raised in Lansing, Michigan, by Jewish parents. At age 14 she flirted with born-again Christianity. At 16 she ran away to Florida, where she became a dancer in a traveling burlesque show. "It wasn't stripping at all, I just did the regular old-fashioned bump and grind," she recalls. "I did my share of eating fire and swallowing swords."

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