High Heaven

Sweet leaf: Rabbi Ariel Pedersen plays chicken with Minnesota's marijuana laws
Geoffrey P. Kroll

Rabbi Ariel Pedersen would never say the devil made her do it. But the rabbi is certain that something mystical happened one Friday afternoon in early October, as she was driving to her modest farmhouse in North Branch, 40 miles north of the Twin Cities. Pedersen insists that as she cruised along County Road 8 and saw an oncoming Chisago County sheriff's car, she felt a force on her leg, causing her foot to press down harder on the accelerator. Faster and faster she went, and as her Ford Bronco whizzed past the cops, she saw the patrol car whip around, lights aglow in the autumn sun.

It was, she believes, an act of God.

The way Pedersen remembers it, she had gone for a walk in the woods on a lot owned by a friend and came across a number of large marijuana plants. She clipped four at their base, stuffed them into two black plastic bags, tossed them in the back of her SUV, and set out on a "beautiful fall afternoon drive." After sheriff's deputy Sgt. Doug Henning pulled her over, she recalls, the officer told her he smelled marijuana emanating from the driver's-side window, which was cracked open. Pedersen told the deputy that she had "two huge bags of pot" in the Bronco.

And then, the self-proclaimed Rabbi of Doobie says, she felt an ethereal thrill. "I heard God's voice saying, 'Fear not, I am with you,'" she recalls, "and I thought, 'Cool. We're doing time together.'"

Perhaps God wasn't counting on the possibility of doing quite so much time. A report from the Chisago County Attorney's Office verifies the more earthly details of Pedersen's tale, but contends that the pot plants in the back seat were eventually found to contain more than 529 grams of marijuana--over a pound, and more than 12 times the amount state law says adds up to a felony. As a consequence, Pedersen faces a possession charge punishable by up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine, as well as a misdemeanor charge of possessing marijuana in a motor vehicle, which could earn her another 90 days of time and a $1,000 fine.

None of this fazes Pedersen, who claims that she smokes marijuana for medicinal reasons, an assertion duly noted in the criminal complaint filed against her on March 21. She is, she says, anxious to be convicted and take whatever punishment is given to her in court to illustrate how absurd it is that marijuana remains outlawed. "I'm not asking to legalize it to be stoned; that's blasphemy," she explains, standing in a chicken coop on her farm. "Personally, I believe all plants should be legal, but I'm not going to get into that. This is about people dying, and they are suffering."

Though the debate over legalizing the use of marijuana for medicinal purposes is hardly new, Gov. Jesse Ventura's pro-pot stance seems to have rejuvenated interest in the issue. In fact, an April forum held at the state Department of Health in St. Paul was attended by medicinal marijuana activists, members of the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws, Ventura, and a number of state employees. Jan Malcolm, commissioner of the health department, says the state sponsored the conference in the hope of encouraging more scientists to study medicinal effects of marijuana, research that's legal under a little-known 1980 state law.

But few seem ready to approach the issue with the zeal and vigilance of Pedersen, who also attended the forum. For years, she says, her life has been complicated by mysterious illnesses that paralyze her hands and legs, and medicines that make her nauseated and give her headaches. Pedersen suffers from Raynaud's phenomenon, a syndrome that affects roughly five percent to ten percent of the population, mostly women. It constricts blood flow to hands, feet, fingers, and toes. She also says she has a connective-tissue disease that causes muscle spasms and cramps. Conventional treatments, she says, have grown tiresome. "I'm not going to have needles shoved into my thighs anymore," she says of the injected painkillers she has taken for ten years. "Anyone who does that can kiss my rabbinical tush. What the cops did that day was take away my medicine."

A stout 42-year-old woman with straight red hair and impossibly green eyes, Pedersen wears a diamond in her left nostril, and a necklace adorned with a Messianic symbol--a combination of a Roman cross and the Star of David. She answers the phone with a raspy "Shalom," and concludes each call with, "Have a blessed day." In her chicken coop, she talks to the Polish chickens, guinea hens, and a single pheasant in the same manner, calling the birds by nicknames. She raises the chickens only for eggs; bear meat, she says, is the best food on the planet. (She has a friend who traps the animals.) "Everything in life must be attached to where it came from to survive," she says. "That's why I believe in the relationship between God's image and man. God is the author of ass-kicking, and I am just the vessel."  

Pedersen was raised in Lansing, Michigan, by Jewish parents. At age 14 she flirted with born-again Christianity. At 16 she ran away to Florida, where she became a dancer in a traveling burlesque show. "It wasn't stripping at all, I just did the regular old-fashioned bump and grind," she recalls. "I did my share of eating fire and swallowing swords."

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."

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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