Note: Originally published in the May 2017 Washington Park Profile.
By now, almost everyone in South Denver and many others from around the world have heard the news: The International Church of Cannabis at 400 S. Logan St., located in the former Mt. Calvary Apostolic Church, opened April 20, the unofficial holiday for cannabis fans. But what is its exact purpose?
The church or venue—what it is depends on who you’re talking to—staged a tiered opening on April 20 with an open-door event from noon to 2:00p.m. and an invite-only event from 3:00p.m. onward. The festivities were to run through Saturday, April 22.
Retirees Sue and Joel Allan of Arvada attended the open-door event and came with curiosity and open minds. “I don’t really understand what’s supposed to happen here,” Sue said. “I know it’s not a religious place, it’s just open, so I don’t know what to expect.”
Pointing to a north-facing window, Sue referenced a Christian cross which is still visible even after the church has seen extensive renovations. “I see there’s a cross on the wall, but I’m not sure what that’s all about. I think the art is amazing; just beautiful. But I’m not sure what’s supposed to go on here. I think if you’re coming here for a sermon, you’re not going to get one.”
The interior art Sue referenced is the creation of Spanish artist Okuda San Miguel, whose other credits include Kaos Temple in Llanera, Spain, a church repurposed as a skate park. The church’s west window and doors were painted by Kenny Scharf, a Los Angeles pop artist.
While Sue seemed curious, her husband Joel seemed to be seeking something. Joel said he and Sue are “Christian-oriented” people, but they haven’t found a church that feels like home.
“We’re just here to check it all out,” Joel Allen said. “We’re looking for a place where we can feel comfortable and go to church. We’ve been to a lot of churches in the area—a Native American church for a while, I’m part indian, Apache, Blackfoot and Cherokee, an ABC indian. We’re looking for a place where we can feel comfortable. I dress different from everyone… I’m tired of playing parts; I just want to be myself.”
As Sue and Joel Allan talked, other curious attendees—some local, some from across the United States and even other parts of the globe—filtered in. As they wandered the church, taking in the artwork and wondering at what the space would be, some filming the space with their cell phones others craning their necks to take in the murals, the church’s Public Relations officer Steve Berke gave media interviews.
Berke, a self-effacing, gregarious man, is working to dispel rumors and is emphatic that the International Church of Cannabis is a place of worship for people who use cannabis. Cannabis is defined as the plant from which hemp and, according to Merriam Webster’s Dictionary, any of the plant’s preparations, such as marijuana or hashish, or psychotropic chemicals, such as THC, come from. Berke insists marijuana and marijuana paraphernalia will not be for sale, and the church is firstly a gathering place for people who use cannabis as a sacrament. As for smoking marijuana on the premises, Berke says the church will closely follow all city regulations.
“People cannot smoke here unless they are invited to a private event per city regulations. Only members invited to private events here can then smoke,” he said.
When asked who the church is truly for, Berke says it’s a place for Elevationists, or people who use cannabis during religious practice to achieve a deepened place of spirituality. According to their website, elevationists.org, “[through] ritual, guided by spiritual practice, church members use the sacred flower to reveal the best version of self, discover a creative voice and enrich their community with the fruits of that creativity. Unlike other belief systems, there is no need to convert to Elevationism. It claims no divine law, no unquestionable doctrine, and no authoritarian structure.”
At the April 20 event, Berke said Elevationism is a complementary practice, not a replacement faith. He wants the church and its practices to be seen as a tradition meant to augment or deepen existing spiritual practices.
That tradition, Berke said, has been going on for a long time. He wants it known the church and its members feel they are participating in a long-standing, if not ancient tradition. “We didn’t invent cannabis as a sacrament for religious purposes. Cannabis has been used for religious purposes for hundreds if not thousands of years. This is a church and it’s going to do all the things churches do, including soup kitchen work and helping the homeless.”
Berke describes himself as the founding member of the International Church of Cannabis, but says the church will not have an official leadership hierarchy. There will be no priest, but he hopes to host speakers on a regular basis and to have regular services.
Hopes and plans aside, the Berke says there’s more to be done, and he is asking the community to help the church finish renovations. The church has an Indiegogo fundraising page (indiegogo.com), and there spokesperson Briley Hale, a model who describes herself as an “activist and Elevationist,” calls the church, “a vibrant community center, and the spiritual home of adults everywhere who experience deeper meaning and fellowship through the sacrament of cannabis.” Indiegogo is “a launchpad for entrepreneurial ideas” that raises funds through crowdfunding. To date, the page has raised nearly $35,000 towards a goal of $100,000. It is stated the funds will be used for a new boiler, disabled access and repairs to windows and the kitchen.
As for the purchase of the church itself, the building was bought in 2015 through Bang Holdings by William and Alam Berke, Steve Berke’s parents, of North Miami Beach for $1,067,000.
The Indiegogo site says the $100,000 goal is “flexible,” but the aim is to raise the money by July through membership donations of between $4.20 and $2,017. Membership donations are tied to packages with various “perks” included, such as an “exclusive video tour” of the church and its “many secret rooms,” increasingly colorful tee shirts and a “Dedicated Hit … a secret online ‘420 Sessions’ group where participants will take a hit in your honor.”
The sticking point, though, is Denver’s government is still grinding out the regulations for public and social consumption of cannabis. As Dan Rowland, Denver’s Marijuana Communications Advisor, says “The church has a zoning permit, but that doesn’t say much. There are obviously concerns about the Colorado Clean Indoor Air Act and state and local laws prohibiting the open and public consumption of marijuana.”
Laura Schwartz with Denver’s Community Planning and Development (CPD) confirms that CPD issued the church a zoning permit for religious assembly use on March 22. “We don’t discriminate as to denomination or question the nature of an applicant’s religious beliefs, but once they open, if they were to violate zoning or other laws, enforcement would proceed accordingly,” she says.
Per the potential for violations, Rowland notes the Colorado Clean Indoor Air Act prohibits smoking inside most public facilities and confirms there are no exemptions for churches. Citing city ordinance, he says, “This is not a church,”, adding that it isn’t necessarily a private club, either, unless it conforms to the regulations governing those.
The West Washington Park Neighborhood Association (WWPNA) held their first meeting with Steve Berke on April 17, set up by District 10 City Councilman Jolon Clark. Neighbors are concerned about parking, folks who are under the influence driving or congregating around the church, noise and odors. Speaking to those concerns, Berke said “as a real estate investor myself, I’m quite aware of the concerns of the neighborhood,” adding he is anxious to establish a “good neighbor agreement.”
Councilman Clark has promised to track this issue closely. Over the weekend of the opening, Councilman Clark reports his office did receive several complaints. “People were encouraged to report to DPD or 311 to record any official complaints about laws or ordinances being broken. Complaints I heard of were in relation to noise, odor and traffic/parking concerns. I continue to work with all of the city agencies to make sure [the church is] following all of the codes and laws that we have.”
Denver District 3 police reported they did receive complaints, but they were unable to provide details by press time.
The Profile will continue to cover this story as it develops.
Lucy Graca contributed to this story.