Holy smoke: Rastafarians toke for a higher power


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.

"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.

A Rastafarian flag takes up one wall on the second floor of the Arend house

A Rastafarian flag takes up one wall on the second floor of the Arend house

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.

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.

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."

"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."

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.

"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.

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."

While she used to smoke herself, Newstrand says she was never okay with her kids using marijuana. Around the time she and Jamison split, she started catching Jordan "getting high and playing Call of Duty, like every other teenager," not smoking as a sacrament.

"He does it because he idolizes his dad," Newstrand argues. "In my eyes, he's brainwashed on a daily basis."

Both Jamison and Jordan are furious to hear Newstrand's opinion, and say that it's based on nothing more than bad blood.

"They are anything but railroaded into this," Jamison says of his kids. "Any day, they know they can cut their hair off, they can go find Jesus or whatever."

But while the Arends fight a case that revolves around whether their beliefs are true, even other Rastas question their sincerity.

"The Court of Appeals gives him the right, but who is his teacher? Who does he sit with?" asks a Jamaican who immigrated to the Twin Cities 30 years ago, and grew up steeped in Rasta culture. "I can count the real Rastas around Minneapolis on the fingers of my hands, and the majority of them are just commercial."

Without knowing the Arends directly, he gives his take: "They're what I call rent-a-dreads."

Mark Berkson, a professor who heads the religion department at Hamline University, finds the religious nuances fascinating. But ultimately, he points out, the courts have to make a blunter judgment. Unable to measure a person's soul, they must go on the evidence presented to them.

"You could have debates about, is Jamison Arend really Rasta all day," Berkson says. "What's key here, though, is that it's irrelevant legally."

In White Bear Lake, Newstrand wipes her blond bangs away from her eyes. "Religious freedoms are a good thing," she says, stroking the pit bull on the couch next to her. "But because they're there, they can get taken advantage of."

Two days after the Court of Appeals decision, Jamison and Kemp are sitting in a small conference room in Kemp's office, still marveling at their victory.

"No one thought we were going to win here, even you," Jamison teases Kemp.

His lawyer replies: "I just told you, don't get your hopes too high."

"Yeah," Jamison says. "But this is what happens when the truth's on your side."

As they hash out their win, they start puzzling out what's next. The Ramsey County Attorney's Office has 30 days to ask the Minnesota Supreme Court to review the case, Kemp explains.

"What's the odds you think the Supreme Court would take it anyway?" Jamison muses.

"I don't know," Kemp replies, then breaks the news: Though they have a month to file the paperwork, the prosecutors have already announced that they will appeal.

"While we respect the decision of the Minnesota Court of Appeals," First Assistant Ramsey County Attorney John Kelly says in a statement, "we will appeal it by filing a petition for review with the Minnesota Supreme Court."

In Kemp's office, Jamison pauses for a moment, processing the new information. "Really?" he asks, and rocks back on his chair. "That's too bad."

The two toss around some ideas of what might lie ahead. The first step, Kemp explains, it to argue that the Supreme Court shouldn't hear the case at all.

"All right," Jamison replies. "Well, no fear."

Jamison and Kemp agree to meet again soon. As he steps out of the law office, Jamison shakes his dreadlocked head.

"So they're really going to appeal," he says, half to himself. Then his confidence springs back: "Huh. You know what? Good."

"I think they think there are so few of us that they can just step on us, but the higher this goes, the better," he continues, his voice rising again.

"You're going to see a lot more dreadlocks in the state of Minnesota."