A 113-year-old church in Denver has found a higher calling.
The International Church of Cannabis opens its doors on April 20, the unofficial annual marijuana holiday. The renovated church at 400 S. Logan St. is the headquarters of Elevation Ministries, a newly formed Colorado nonprofit religious organization that claims cannabis as its primary sacrament.
This is a unique community for those who consume cannabis as a means to achieving self-discovery, founding member Steve Berke told The Cannabist in an exclusive interview and tour of the church. Members, known as Elevationists, claim no theology or authoritarian structure, he said.
“The Elevationists’ goal is creating the best version of themselves. We believe cannabis accelerates and deepens that process.”
As the 4/20 opening approaches, residents of the West Washington Park neighborhood are expressing concerns about plans for the church, which many became aware of only after the church’s title appeared in Google searches of the address in early April. The church also has caught the attention of skeptical city officials worried it is circumventing state and local laws about open and public consumption.
Berke and founding members of the Elevationists who spoke to The Cannabist insisted that their nascent religion is not a social club masquerading as a church to avoid state prohibitions on open and public consumption of marijuana. These restrictions are outlined in Amendment 64, the state voter-approved 2012 ballot initiative that legalized recreational pot, but Initiative 300 passed by Denver voters in November opens the doors to social use in consumption zones operated by permitted businesses.
“If that were the case, this would be an expensive and inefficient way to get stoned,” said member Lee Molloy. “We’re interested in building something larger here — a community that supports each other as we each discover our own paths.”
Berke is blunt: “We’re entirely within our First Amendment rights to practice our religion in this building.”
But the Elevationists may not have to invoke constitutional freedoms to practice their religion according to the church’s legal counsel, Denver marijuana law firm Vicente Sederberg LLC.
“This church is a legitimate effort to create a community for people that don’t find that in traditional religion, and it intends to follow all laws,” attorney Christian Sederberg said. “Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of association — those constitutional protections apply. But the definition of ‘open and public consumption’ was never defined in Colorado state statute. The whole concept remains to be decided at the local level and we believe there’s space for this church to operate within those evolving statues.”
Elevationists’ ritual use of cannabis is not unlike the serving of wine during communion in Christian churches, Sederberg said. “When alcohol is served and consumed at a traditional church, is that in violation of open and public consumption laws?”
But based on preliminary information available, Denver officials are skeptical of Elevation Ministries’ intent to include cannabis in religious services in the church.
“We’re always dealing with issues of people or groups trying to skirt laws with the private social-club model,” said Dan Rowland, spokesman for the Department of Excise and Licenses. “But we haven’t yet seen those efforts cloaked in religion.”
Elevation Ministries received a zoning permit March 22 to operate a church, and leaders have to establish the building’s use as a church within 180 days of its issuance.
But until they open their doors, the city is in a wait-and-see posture, Rowland said.
“The open and public consumption of cannabis is not permitted in Denver and there’s not a religious exemption to that,” he said.
Interactive 3D video of the church sanctuary. Story continues below video:
Beyond a flyer circulated to immediate neighbors of the church on Monday, very little information has been made available, said City Councilman Jolon Clark. He first became aware of the intended use on April 4 when a concerned constituent phoned his office.
“I’ve since spoken with the church and am actively working to schedule a meeting with church leaders and the community,” he said. “I’m also working with the state’s office of marijuana policy and other agencies to ensure all laws are being followed.”
Neighbors are understandably concerned, said West Washington Park Neighborhood Association President Nicholas Amrhein. He says the group has a good relationship with bars and marijuana retailers within its boundaries and hopes they can establish a framework for a ‘Good Neighbor Agreement’ similar to those they have forged with other businesses. “We hope to do the same with the new church, but we need to know what their plan is.”
Berke said the plan for the church’s official opening is a three-day event kicking off April 20 called “Elevate 2017.”
During the day the church will host roundtable discussions and speeches with cannabis business leaders and policymakers. In the evenings, the church will host national comedy and music acts and screen documentaries. Confirmed speakers include Roben Farzad, producer and host of “Full Disclosure,” a radio show aired on NPR One, and documentarian Billy Corben, director of “Square Grouper,” chronicling Miami’s pot smuggling scene of the 1970s. Musical acts are still in the works, but confirmed comedians include by Kyle Grooms, a New York comic who has appeared on NBC’s “Last Comic Standing,” and Ramon Rivas II, a Cleveland comic who recently appeared on Comedy Central’s “The Half Hour.”
The event also will highlight the extensive renovations Elevation Ministries has undertaken in the historic church. Spanish artist Okuda San Miguel has covered the sanctuary’s walls and vaulted dome ceilings in a geometric rainbow mural. Outside, pop artist Kenny Scharf has installed a cosmos painting in his trademark street art style over once broken windows.
Elevate 2017 will be free to the public and also broadcast across the globe on Facebook Live to members who pay a $ 5 fee. “It’s an exciting launch for Elevation Ministries,” Berke said. “It’s the start of our journey to build a truly international community.”