Colorado brings new meaning to the expression of “smoking cannabis religiously.” On April 20th of this year, Denver opened its very first International Church of Cannabis. Similar to the First Church of Cannabis in Indiana, the new religious center intends to help people find spiritual enlightenment through the use of cannabis.
Though its use has been largely excluded from historical texts, cannabis has religious roots that date all the way back to ancient China. They called it “Ma,” which translates into the ‘plant with two faces’ and reserved its use for religious officials.
The Rastafarian movement is also well-known for using marijuana in their rituals. It is supposed to aid their spirits in rejecting materialism and oppression. In the 20th century, their religious use of the herb was scrutinized and led to long-held legal processions. Eventually, the court held that the consumption of marijuana was legal under U.S. law for religious and spiritual purposes. Their efforts to retain their right to use cannabis spurred the 1993 Religious Freedom and Restoration Act that warrants the very existence of other religious cannabis movements.
The Inception of the International Church of Cannabis (ICC)
Unfortunately, there has been a social stigma surrounding those who choose to use medical marijuana. Yet, as laws continue to improve, people from all walks of life are becoming more and more open with their spiritual, religious, and healing practices. That is why Steve Berke, co-founder and landlord of the ICC, decided to buy up the 113-year-old church. He wanted to create a place where people could spiritually celebrate marijuana. However, it should be noted that there are no plans to distribute marijuana at the church. Rather, it is simply meant for a place where people can use marijuana for spiritual practices.
Following no specific dogma, the members call themselves ‘Elevationists.’ They firmly believe that marijuana’s sacramental power can lead them to spiritual fulfillment. The church claims to provide a space for adults to “ritually take the sacred flower to find inspiration and meaning.” Whether smoking quietly in a pew or having a talk about life out on the patio, Elevationists can search for peace and clarity with like-minded people. The church is open to anyone, from any faith, who chooses to use marijuana as a path to spiritual enlightenment.
Discovering the Church Itself
Nestled in a quiet, family-friendly neighborhood, the 13,000 square-foot space is colorfully painted by famous Spanish artist, Okuda San Miguel, and American artist, Kenny Scharf. Elaborate shapes, designs, and drawings give the inside of the cathedral an undeniably joyful and creative look. As written on the church’s website, “when one takes the sacrament and meditates on the meaning of the murals, one may have what feels like a transcendental experience.” They say that “in those moments, one receives the meaning one requires at that time.”
There is a community kitchen, an art patio, and even a second floor of the church that is quickly filling up as more members flood in to join. In fact, in the very first week of opening, membership for the church expanded 500 percent, and it is still growing.
The community, as a whole, is not quite sure what to make of it, but like all new things, there has to be an adjustment period. Steve Berke is “trying to be positive and impactful within the community” with live concerts and comedy shows; it shouldn’t be long before most people get used to the not-for-profit.
Mixed Reactions from Local Residents
It hasn’t all been sunshine and daisies though. The new church is getting its fair share of pushback from the local government. Supposedly on its opening day, the events became “very restrictive and private,” says Steve Berke. “They tried to throw me in jail,” he adds.
Luckily, the pushback has been met with limited success. The New York Times reports that this “challenge to the church’s legality… proposed in the state’s House of Representatives, was shut down almost as quickly as it arose on [that] Thursday morning.”
Regardless, the church is walking a fine line with state officials. Democratic state Rep. Dan Pabon of Denver believes that “what they’re doing seems patently illegal.” He believes it is a ‘social pot club,’ which are currently prohibited in Denver. Dan Rowland, spokesman for Denver’s Department of Excise and Licenses, says, “The open and public consumption of cannabis is not permitted in Denver, and there’s not a religious exemption to that.”
In what seems to be a compromise from otherwise being shut down, the church has agreed to keep its events as invite-only as new regulations for the “approved public use of marijuana in permitted businesses” are defined.
Where it Stands from a Legal Perspective
Currently, it is unclear whether the ICC is working to obtain legal status as a church, as it is defined by Section 501(c) 3 under IRS Code. Steve Berke openly states that he wouldn’t have chosen to start a church if he was looking for a way to obtain tax exemptions. This suggests that his primary concern is to secure the right to religious freedom and to be able to allow the use of medical marijuana in its facilities at all times.
Starting One of Your Own
If Denver is too far away for you, there is always the option of starting your own church of cannabis. Proven to be a viable religion in most states, the ability to open one depends primarily on the state laws on both religious freedom and public marijuana consumption. Looking at the First Church of Cannabis in Indiana, members can openly smoke marijuana at the facilities because the state’s regulations protect citizens who wish to practice their religion freely and openly. However, in Denver, it’s the opposite case; the state is choosing to enforce its laws that prohibit the open use of marijuana over the right to religious freedom.
The process is similar to starting a church or non-profit of any nature. Though, it gets a little trickier when it comes to the marijuana side of things. For this, you will want to qualify for legal religious and church status so long as you are protected in your state to practice your religion without interference. Otherwise, you will have to work around it for now like the International Church of Cannabis and continue to push for the legal use of marijuana for spiritual purposes.
How You Can Support the Cause!
Right now, the church is in serious need of renovations. Starting up with a 100-year-old building calls for lots of restoration costs for them to build a more accessible and enjoyable environment for all members. ICC is currently taking donations for their cause. You can pledge $4.20 to their Indiegogo campaign and become a lifetime member of the church.
Contact Info for Steve Berke: