Holy smoke! The church of cannabis

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As congregations dwindle, a new religion is lighting up Denver, Colorado. Aaron Millar joins the ‘elevationists’ of the International Church of Cannabis who worship the weed

It started, naturally, with a group of friends smoking a joint. Steve Berke, a graduate of Yale University, was temporarily living in an old church in Denver, Colorado. His estate agent parents had bought the 113-year-old building with the plan to turn it into flats. He and Lee Molloy, as well as a few friends, had just moved from Miami to capitalise on Colorado’s lucrative marijuana market. But then, in the words of Lee: “We started having these stupid, fantastical conversations. What if we kept it as a church?” So Steve convinced his parents to give him the building and, nine months later, on 20 April 2016 – 4/20, as it’s known in the United States, the unofficial pothead’s holiday (because it’s 4.20pm somewhere, right?) – the International Church of Cannabis opened its doors with its own chapel, theology and video game arcade.

From the outside all appears normal: red-brick towers, blocky turrets, a classic city church in an otherwise leafy suburb of Denver. But there are giveaways. The three front doors and arched window facade have been spray-painted with silver galaxies and bright, happy-face planets. The work of legendary painter and graphic artist Kenny Scharf, who has exhibited in the Whitney and New York’s Museum of Modern Art, it looks more like the backdrop for an illegal 90s rave than your typical parish church. But it’s indicative of the coup that Elevation Ministries, the non-profit company that Steve and Lee co-founded to set up the Church of Cannabis, has managed to pull off.

“That mural would probably buy you next door’s house,” Lee says, letting me in. But they got it for the price of an air ticket for Scharf, a few days’ skiing and the loan of a jacket. People love fantastical ideas.

Perfect peace: guests of the church relaxing in the hangout room.
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Perfect peace: guests of the church relaxing in the hangout room. Photograph: Ryan David Brown for the Observer

The original plan was to open it to the general public, but because Colorado’s current pot law only allows smoking in private clubs, it is, for now at least, a members-only affair. To date they have more than 1,400 on their list. They open the doors from Thursday to Sunday for smoke-free public viewing, with private cannabis services held on Friday nights. It seems to be growing.

That’s not surprising. Medical marijuana was legalised in Colorado in 2000 – the first state to write it into its constitution. By 2009 dispensaries began popping up around the state and legalisation of recreational use soon followed in 2012. It has, for the most part, been wholeheartedly embraced. In 2016 Colorado sold more than a $1bn of weed, created thousands of new jobs and collected almost $200m in additional tax revenue. A church dedicated to cannabis may seem strange to us, but in Colorado it might just be the next logical step.

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