Holy smoke: Rastafarians toke for a higher power

Father and son argue in Minnesota courts that marijuana is essential to their religion

Holy smoke: Rastafarians toke for a higher power
Brian Garrity
Dad Jamison, left, and son Jordan Arend at home in St. Paul’s Hamline-Midway neighborhood

UPDATE: The Minnesota Supreme Court declined review of the Arends' case, which means the Court of Appeals decision is the final word... and the Rastas won.

An air conditioning unit in the stairwell doesn't do much to ventilate the smoke clouding up the second-floor living room, or the aroma: the sweet, pungent smell of marijuana. Up the stairs, Bob Marley's familiar Jamaican lilt bounces from computer speakers, and a brown and white pit bull sprawls across the carpeted floor, gnawing a bone.

In the center of the room, a man sits cross-legged on a gold-colored bean bag, flanked by a computer mouse, an e-cigarette, and a white bowl filled with cannabis. He's folded into a green hockey sweatshirt, and his thick, ropey dreadlocks are tied off his face.

Glass Endeavors / Emily Utne
A Rastafarian flag takes up one wall on the second floor of the Arend house
Brian Garrity
A Rastafarian flag takes up one wall on the second floor of the Arend house

"Hey, pass me that lighter," Jamison Arend says to the guy in the chair next to him, a younger man with loose dreadlocks that hang down to his waist.

"Here, Dad," 16-year-old Jordan replies.

The Arends aren't just stoners holed up at home: They're practicing Rastafarians. Next to the TV hangs the Rastafarian flag — a lion against green, gold, and red stripes — while a black-bound King James Bible rests on the end table at Jamison's left.

When Jamison explains the scriptures' stance on marijuana, his references are wide-ranging. There's an Old Testament recipe for sacred cannabis oil, he rattles off, plus instructions in the Book of Isaiah on praising the lord with a pipe. In the ancient, extra-Biblical text known as the Book of Enoch, there's a passage on the plant itself.

"It starts describing this plant, and it's exactly describing herb," Jamison says. "That it has a smell like no other, that the fruits are like dates, and everything about it."

He reaches into the bowl next to him and pulls out a branch of marijuana. "Is there any question it was talking about this?"

Jordan picks up his father's thread. "What we're doing seems unnecessary to most people," he says, resting his feet on the family dog. "But once it's done, everyone will benefit from it."

The Arends are fighting a crusade of sorts in the Minnesota courts, arguing that their cannabis habit should be a protected religious freedom. No other state "is even close" to allowing a religious-use defense for marijuana-related charges, says Keith Stroup, founder and legal counsel of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML.

But in Minnesota, the Arends have been able to make inroads. They're supported by the strength of the state constitution, which provides "greater protection" for religious freedoms than the U.S. Constitution, explains Teresa Nelson, the legal director of Minnesota's ACLU chapter.

Those religious protections hinge on a key test: whether a person can show he has a sincerely held religious belief. If he can, the burden shifts to the state to justify its laws.

To the Arends, that first test is a breeze. "If I'm not sincere, then there is no religious person in the state that's sincere," argues Jamison.

Still, he acknowledges that he and his son are unlikely Rastafarians.

"We're misfits among misfits," Jamison admits. "I'm a white guy who's a hockey brat from White Bear Lake. It's kind of about as peculiar as it gets."

Standing in the bathroom after a normal day at work, Jamison suddenly couldn't breathe.

"It felt like someone was putting a pillow over my face," he remembers.

He shouted for his long-time girlfriend, Jill Newstrand, who called 911. By the time the ambulance arrived, Jamison hadn't taken a full breath for minutes, and the whites of his eyes had turned bright crimson.

Jamison was in respiratory arrest. By the time he reached the hospital, doctors had to put him in a coma to stabilize him. For the next three days, medication kept Jamison unconscious while fluid drained from his lungs.

"It was horrible, very traumatic," Newstrand says. "The kids saw it and everything."

When Jamison woke up, he could barely walk or talk.

"It felt like getting mugged from the inside," he says.

For the next month, Jamison worked to recover physically. But it would take him longer to process what he had experienced in the coma.

"I saw a lot of things that I couldn't explain," Jamison says. "Whatever happened to me in there, it changed me."

Before that afternoon in the fall of 2002, Jamison was "living the normal American life," as he describes it. Born in 1974, he grew up in White Bear Lake and went to Lutheran services with his family every Sunday. As an adult, he and Newstrand had three boys together, and Jamison bought the family a five-bedroom home with his earnings as a drywaller.

"He looked totally different than he does now," says John Arend, his younger brother. "He had a shaved head, and you couldn't get him off the golf course."

For about a year after he awoke from the coma, Jamison tried to maintain the life he had known. But one afternoon, after listening to his mother drop her regular "subtle hints" about living a Christian life, Jamison asked her for a Bible.

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