Holy smoke: Rastafarians toke for a higher power

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

"Is that clear to you?" Tilsen asked Jamison in court that day.

"Very," he replied.

Today, Tilsen explains the sentencing decision: "The charges had nothing to do with drugs," she says. "It was never litigated or addressed directly, and it wasn't relevant in that case. I try to make the sentence fit the crime."

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

In Jamison's mind, however, he had convinced the court that smoking weed was part of his religion. And he wasn't content to stop there. Even in court that day, the transcript shows that at several points, he tried to ask a question.

"I wanted to ask, if I can smoke it, then where am I supposed to get it? Can I grow it myself?"

Jordan knocked on his mom's door. Not now, Newstrand replied. She was busy putting his youngest brother to sleep.

Jordan knocked again, then again, and the knocks turned into an argument. As mother and son raised their voices, Jordan's grandfather got home. He told Jordan to leave, and the 15-year-old took off across the family's lawn.

Worried about her son, Newstrand started running after him, shouting for him to stay. When she caught up, she grabbed at his clothes, but Jordan kept squirming away. The fight turned physical, and Jordan's grandfather called the White Bear police.

By the time the cops arrived, Jordan was a few blocks south. The officers scooped him up and brought him home.

Then they patted him down.

In one of Jordan's pants pockets, a cop found a pack of cigarettes. In the other was a pipe. Its stem was blue, and its bowl was painted with the colors of Rastafari — red, gold, and green.

Jordan ended up with three misdemeanor charges: disorderly conduct, drug paraphernalia, and minor possession of tobacco. With his dad, he hired a lawyer, Michael Kemp, and pleaded not guilty to the first two counts.

"Why would you press charges for a pipe?" Jamison remembers thinking. "Now you're giving us this great opportunity."

Jordan was about eight when his dad started exploring Rasta, and as early as third grade, Jamison helped him comb dreadlocks into his dirty-blond hair. Even then, Jordan says, his crown meant the same thing: "It was rebel."

For a few years, the Newstrand-Arend home became a Rastafarian one, with even Newstrand dabbling in the new religion. She remembers how her oldest son responded to the culture: "He loved the vibe, he loved the energy, he loved how the music was making everyone feel."

In 2010, after 18 years together, Newstrand and Jamison split. The next year they began a messy custody battle and Jordan, distressed by the turmoil, began running away. Around his 14th birthday, he had to spend 27 days in a juvenile shelter.

Halfway through the stay — "day 16 or 17," Jordan says — he hit his low point. "I was really, really down and depressed, kind of losing hope," he remembers.

Looking out the window, his eyes fell on a big tree in the shelter's backyard. As he was gazing at it, the wind began to blow, and the tree started moving.

"It looked like a lion roaring, exactly like that, for minutes," Jordan says. "It was kind of like a vision. And it made me not give in." By day 27, Jordan was no longer simply aware of Rasta: He was a true believer.

The morning of December 13, 2012, Jordan and Jamison arrived at the courtroom of Judge Mark Ireland for trial. When Jordan took the stand, Kemp got right to his point: "Do you consider yourself a Rastafarian?" he asked Jordan.

"Yes," Jordan replied.

Why? Kemp asked.

"Because I believe that Haile Selassie was Ras Tafari," Jordan said, "and he opened the seven seals, and Bob Marley was the messenger of that."

On the second day of trial, Assistant Ramsey County Attorney Dana Mitchell cross-examined Jordan on his beliefs. She hammered him on whether he had to have his pipe on him at all times, and on where in the Bible, exactly, "it says that you are to possess drug paraphernalia."

"It's not a sincere religious belief," Mitchell argued. "He parrots what he hears, but what he hears is nonsense."

Kemp took a different approach: For his closing argument, he began by reciting Bob Marley lyrics. Not only had Jordan shown a sincere belief, Kemp maintained, but possessing paraphernalia was a much different deal than possessing marijuana itself.

"Jordan is somebody who held these beliefs before he was charged," Kemp told the court. "This isn't a kid caught with paraphernalia who decides he's going to be a Rastafarian. If nothing else, the length of his dreadlocks tells you this has been going on for a while."

Two weeks later, Judge Ireland handed down his decision: guilty. But not, he wrote, because Jordan wasn't Rasta. Ireland found that Rasta met the criteria of a true religion, and that Jordan had shown a sincere belief.

To reach his verdict, Ireland seized on the prosecution's distinction: that Rastafari didn't require Jordan to have his pipe on him all the time, including that night at his mother's.

The Arends didn't have time to be disappointed. Instead, they started working on their appeal.

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