Holy smoke: Rastafarians toke for a higher power

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

The one she got for him was a deluxe version, and had scholars' interpretations typed out beneath the scripture. Jamison had always smoked marijuana — "since I was young" — and one night, he went into the family's garage, lit his pipe, and started reading. The cannabis became a conduit for deeper understanding.

"Without it," Jamison says, "it would have been impossible to tap into all of this."

Over the next two years, Jamison went through "two or three Bibles," John says, filling up the margins with hand-scribbled notes. He started branching out into other scriptures, and piled everything from the Koran to early Gnostic writings in a "treasure chest" in the family's kitchen.

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

Trying to help his quest, a friend suggested he check out a book known as the Kebra Nagast, an ancient text about the origins of the Ethiopian Emperors, sometimes called the Rastafarian bible. Jamison found it at a Barnes & Noble. Once he started reading it, "I couldn't even drive," he says. "I was like, 'This is what all of this has been trying to show me.'"

Not long after, Jamison applied a perm to his unruly hair, and with the help of the chemicals, twisted his strands into fledgling dreadlocks.

For three years, Jamison studied scripture by night and kept up with his drywall job by day, even though his company occasionally drug-tested employees.

Then one day, his boss called him in to the office for a surprise: Jamison had won a company contest for a new motorcycle.

While they waited to finalize the details, Jamison took a seat across his boss's desk, and listened as the man started talking about his kids' baptism. Though he hadn't planned to bring it up, the conversation sparked thoughts about his own new belief. The way he remembers it, he slipped in a reference to federal laws that require employers to make exemptions for religious people at work, like providing a prayer room.

Then he went for it: He told his boss that because of his religion, he should be exempt from the company's drug tests for marijuana.

"I said something like, 'I'm not telling you I want to sit here and smoke giant bongs at work,'" Jamison remembers. "But I don't want to hear from a company that serves alcohol at every function that I can't practice my religion when I go home, in privacy."

His boss got quiet, Jamison remembers, and changed the subject. But, Jamison says, "that was the last time I ever ran a job for them."

Once a company star, Jamison got laid off the next year. He tried to work odd jobs, but without his union pay, the family couldn't keep up with mortgage payments. In June 2008, they lost their house to foreclosure.

"It destroyed my financial life," Jamison says. "But when this thing comes calling, you don't say no."

In January 2010, Jamison arrived home ready to get out of his sister's basement.

He'd been living in her Maplewood rambler for a year and a half, but the arrangement had soured, and Jamison had until the end of the day to move out. He didn't have much stuff — mostly just clothes, a TV, and a bed — and he walked into his basement room prepared to quickly finish packing. But instead of his piled belongings, he saw his sister's boyfriend and the man's cousin installing egress windows, concrete saws in hand.

Jamison sized up the situation quickly: "These people had lethal weapons in their hands and they were invading my space."

The way Jamison remembers it, he yelled at them to leave. "I'm sure it was very colorful," Jamison admits. "I said a few things I shouldn't have."

The men didn't reply, so Jamison stepped out of the room. When he returned, he was brandishing his six-iron golf club.

"I told 'em, 'You're leaving right now,'" Jamison says.

When they still didn't respond, Jamison swung at the window pane and broke it. He threatened that if they didn't leave, they'd be next.

This time, the men fled. But when they walked out of the bedroom, they called the cops.

Jamison was charged with assault and making terroristic threats. Two months later, he walked into a sentencing hearing at the Ramsey County Courthouse.

Bruce Wenger, Jamison's public defender, remembers that his client wanted to raise a "very unusual" request. Wenger, an attorney for 30 years and a public defender for 18, figured he'd give it a shot.

"My client is a Rastafarian," Wenger began once the hearing was underway. His client's religious practices, Wenger argued, should exempt him from the standard drug tests while on probation.

Judge Judith Tilsen took a moment to reply. First, she handed down Jamison's sentence: She nixed the assault charge, but still punished him with 30 days in jail and up to five years probation. Then she got to the terms of that probation.

Jamison didn't have to be drug tested for marijuana, Tilsen ordered. And if by chance he was, then a positive for marijuana would not violate his probation.

"The defense has proven a colorable claim of religious right to ceremonial use of cannabis," she explained in the legal jargon, before further breaking down her rationale: If she ordered Jamison to quit smoking, Tilsen said, she worried, "I would be setting you up."

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