Holy smoke: Rastafarians toke for a higher power

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

"They are learning that we will take even petty misdemeanors all the way, as high as we need to," Jamison says of the courts. "This isn't fun for us. We don't want to do this. But unfortunately, this is survival."

On the crisp morning of July 23, 2013, Jordan and Jamison Arend climbed the stone steps of the Minnesota Judicial Center to the second floor. They paused outside the courtroom's thick wooden doors and took a seat on hallway benches.

Side by side in the imposing hall, father and son looked like twins in matching outfits: blue jeans and white button-downs purchased the night before at Target. Long ropes of tangled hair twisted down their backs — Jamison's tied into a ponytail and Jordan's hanging loose — with both sets of dreadlocks covered by red, yellow, and green knit caps pulled over the tops of their heads. They were in the heart of the Babylon system: They had to cover their crowns.

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

When they walked into the courtroom just before 10 a.m., everyone else was wearing a suit. Three Court of Appeals judges filed in, and Kemp stood to deliver his argument. If Rasta requires Jordan to have a pipe on him at some times, Kemp asked the court, then what should he do with it the rest of the time? He explained again that for Jordan, the pipe served as a reminder of his religion — like the Christian rosary.

When Assistant Ramsey County Attorney Thomas Ragatz stepped up, he pushed back. If the pipe was a reminder, he asked, then where should the state draw the line? What about "a hand grenade with a cannabis leaf on it?"

As the lawyers dueled, the three judges peppered them with questions. After Ragatz raised the specter of a holy hand grenade, Judge Carol Hooten interjected.

"I understand your argument, but in this case, the court found that Rasta is a religion," she said. "I think he very clearly testifies it's to remind him of his religion. If that's his testimony, and this ceremony is a big part of the religion, how is this any different than carrying around a rosary?"

When oral arguments ended, the Arends, Kemp, and a friend decamped to a Keys Café down the street for coffee and breakfast.

"Have you ever had the jelly here?" Jamison asked as the odd group — two guys in dreadlocks, two others in suits — settled in around a table. "I'm telling you dude, it's killer. Killer."

As the group unpacked their day in court — "really good job, man," Jamison told Kemp — they also prepared for a long wait: The judges had up to three months to issue their decision.

"I have faith things will be all right," Jamison said over his eggs. "I think all of this is in the stars. There's something bigger going on, that's all I know."

Two months later — on September 23, 2013 — the decision came in early. Judge Jill Flaskamp Halbrooks authored the unpublished opinion.

Jordan argues that he established "a firmly held belief worthy of protection," Halbrooks wrote. "We agree," she ruled, reversing the lower court.

Halbrooks ran through the evidence of Jordan's sincerity, including his comments that the colors on his pipe — "red for the blood of the martyrs, yellow for the sun that grows the greens, the sacred herb," as Jordan explained at trial — were themselves a religious reminder.

As she dissected the state's argument, Halbrooks chastised the prosecutors for conflating two laws, and for treating Jordan's pipe as though it were marijuana. She even fired a warning shot: The Minnesota Constitution could protect religious use of marijuana itself. That question is still open, Halbrooks noted; Minnesota courts haven't addressed it.

When Kemp read the decision, "I was very pleased," he says, with a grin on his face. "I'm not sure a court has ever done this before."

Jamison is less measured: "It's not only the decision, it's the language in the decision," he says, sitting in his living room. "It's beautiful."

Jill Newstrand settles into a plaid couch in her father's house, a split-level near a pond in White Bear Lake. Her dangling silver earrings bounce as she begins to talk about her oldest son.

Look, she says, this is the last picture I have of him. She gets up and walks over to a small table next to the kitchen, piled with photos of her kids, and picks up a three-year old photo of Jordan circa eighth-grade school picture day.

"His dreads were just starting to grow," Newstrand says, brushing a hand over Jordan's unsmiling face. "The whole thing makes me absolutely sick. I've watched my children go from kind, loving, compassionate kids to quote-unquote potheads."

And it's not just the pot, Newstrand explains: It's that now she sees her kids as angry and directionless.

When Jamison first started digging into the Bible, Newstrand was interested in it herself. Raised Evangelical, she found that Rasta's tenets of non-materialism and love appealed to her.

"It was one of the very few religions I felt like I could relate to," Newstrand says. "But I don't believe that I raised these kids Rasta."

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