High Heaven

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

She also developed a nasty drug habit: methamphetamine and cocaine. In 1990 she found herself in Hawaii at the Monarch Hotel, watching television with a meth pipe in her hand. "I kept smoking and changing the channel on the TV, but the only station I could get was this black preacher from Jamaica or the Bahamas," Pedersen says. "He helped me see the light." She stopped using the harder and synthetic drugs and found God.

She eventually ended up at the Crenshaw Christian Center, a Los Angeles church. In 1997, she earned a certificate from the church's ministry training institute and moved to Brooklyn Park. Within two years, she had a ministry certificate from the State of Minnesota, making it legal for her "to marry 'em and bury 'em," she says. Pedersen considers herself a student of Messianic Judaism; she believes that Christ, as the only son of God, did rise again, but does not refute her ethnic identity as a Jew.

Soon she began agitating for the legalization of marijuana. ("As a minister," she says, "I go to people and they say, 'Rabbi, you got a joint?' And I'll slip 'em a doobie.") And she seems hell-bent on being the poster child for medicinal marijuana use in Minnesota. So much so that after her October 6 arrest, Pedersen spent months pestering Assistant Chisago County Attorney Dan Vlieger about how long it was taking the county to get around to charging her with a crime. "She complained, and I told her, 'Look, I could take up to three years to charge you if I want,'" Vlieger recalls with a laugh. "She was a pain to talk to sometimes."

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

Chris Wright, chairman of the Minnesota Grassroots Party and a proponent of legalizing marijuana, thought Pedersen might be nuts. He urged her to lie low while the state's Bureau of Criminal Apprehension analyzed the plants seized from her car. Because there was no telling how much THC would be found in the weed, it wasn't clear she would face charges. But Wright couldn't convince her to drop her campaign to be arrested. "We wondered if the good rabbi was pissing in the wind," he says. "But if she wants to go out and be a sacrificial lamb, we'll support her."

In two years as a county attorney, Vlieger has seen only a handful of felony pot busts and notes that Pedersen is the first person who has ever lobbied to be charged. It takes awhile to charge some people, he explains; marijuana plants must be dried before they can be analyzed by the BCA's laboratory. And because the state agency is overloaded, it's not unusual for cases to take four to six months to charge.

In March the rabbi got her wish. Vlieger charged her, aware that it would give her a pulpit from which to preach her belief in medicinal marijuana use. "She would never let me say it was a controlled substance," he recalls. "She'd always yell back, 'This is a plant put on God's earth!' I kept saying that she needs to understand that this is classified as a drug, no matter what her beliefs."

Vlieger says that, given her clean record, he doubts that she will receive the maximum sentence if found guilty. A trial date has not been set.

Tim O'Malley, a special agent for the BCA who attended the recent state forum on the issue, isn't so sure that God and Pedersen will end up cooling their heels in prison at all. "It's a timely issue for her to take the medicinal defense," he says. "Forget that it's marijuana; if it's medicine, let's demystify it. From a legal standpoint, it's not that complicated. Let's get the FDA and DEA to get an approval for a delivery system for this. It's the same as morphine and amphetamines, which are prescribed legally all the time."

Which is fine for anyone who has the time to wait for new developments in a decades-old policy debate, but Pedersen is more concerned with spreading her fire and brimstone right now. "Perhaps God's plan is for me to go to jail," she says, her green eyes beaming. "Maybe people in there need salvation."

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