Holy smoke! The church of cannabis

It began, naturally, with a group of friends smoking a joint. Steve Berke, a graduate of Yale University, was living temporarily in an old church in Denver, Colorado. Your real parents had purchased the 113 years of construction with the plan to turn it into housing. He and Lee Molloy, as well as a couple of friends, just moved from Miami to take advantage of Colorado’s lucrative marijuana market. But then, in the words of Lee: “we started to have these stupid, fantastic conversations. What if it stays as a church?” So Steve convinced his parents to give him the building and, nine months later, on April 20, 2016 – 4/20, as it is known in the united States, the official pothead holiday (because it is 4.20 pm somewhere, right?) – the International Church of Cannabis opened its doors with its own chapel, the theology and video games.

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

“The Mural probably was going to buy the next door of the house,” says Lee, let me in. But they got it for the price of an air ticket for Scharf, a couple of days of skiing and the loan of a jacket. The love of the people fantastic ideas.

Perfect peace: the guests of the church, relax in the meeting-place of the room. Photo: Ryan David Brown for the Observer

The original plan was opened to the public in general, but because Colorado’s current pot law only allows smoking in private clubs, it is, for now at least, only for members of the matter. To date, we have more than 1,400 on your list. The doors are opened from Thursday to Sunday, smoke-free, public, private cannabis services out Friday night. It seems to be growing.

That is not surprising. Medical marijuana was legalized in the state of Colorado in the year 2000 – the first state to write into its constitution. In 2009, dispensaries began to appear all over the state and the legalization of the recreational use soon followed in 2012. It has, for the most part, has been welcomed with enthusiasm. In 2016, Colorado sold more than $1bn of weeds, created thousands of new jobs and collected almost $ 200 million in additional tax revenue. A church devoted to cannabis it may seem strange to us, but in Colorado it might just be the next logical step.

But there have been detractors. Currently, three of the founding members, including Lee, are under appointment for the two charges dating back to its opening 4/20 event: the first to break the Colorado Clean indoor Air Act, prohibits smoking in public places, and the second for violating a state law that prohibits marijuana consumption outside private homes and clubs. To refute the claims, and the officials admit that they seem to have been the fulfillment of the law, of course, but a court date is pending.

Dan Pabon, from the state of the house of Representatives, goes beyond this: in a recent interview with the New York Times said that the new church – “it offends both the religious beliefs of all the world, as well as the voters intended to allow the legalization of marijuana in Colorado”. He introduced an amendment that would ban pot use in the churches, but to date has failed to garner support. In general, however, the official opposition seems to be decreasing. Daniel Rowland, spokesman for the office of the city of Denver, says: “whenever you operate within the law and not to offend their neighbors, that we are free to do what they want.”

Lighting: Lee Molloy, co-founding member, smokes a joint on the main stage. Photo: Ryan David Brown for the Observer

But what about the neighbors? Peter G Chronis, writing in the local newspaper the Denver Post, said he was “shocked” – upset that the project was done in secret and that the district has not had an opportunity to express their concerns prior to its completion. The parking and the noise, rather than the consumption of marijuana in the interior, still seem to be the main concerns, as well as the possibility that attendees will be able to drive home stoned. But Lee is waiting for you to turn round: the organization of volunteer days through his church, to help make a positive impact in the community. Last Saturday they went out to the garbage of the streets of the town. For now, at least, does not seem to be an attempt of a truce.

But to put all beliefs and disputes aside, what everyone can agree on is that they have transformed an almost derelict building into a stunning work of art. Every surface has been painted in vibrant patterns of red, blue and green, geometric prisms with mythological creatures, the stars and the eyes hidden inside. In the back of the wall, two dreamy, Dali-esque giant sit with your legs crossed as if lost in meditation. “It feels like a hallucination,” someone says at my side, with the eye careening upwards. It’s like being swallowed by a cover album of Pink Floyd. Perhaps most impressive of all is that it was created spontaneously without a sketch or a plan. This was another gift: they flew Spanish artist Okuda San Miguel more and we bought a lot of paintings, then he began to work in a corner and painted all that he dreamed of him until he finishes. It only took six days – he rested on the seventh.

As the service begins we are encouraged to get to know each other: people spark up joints and pass them around. Long wisps of smoke that float in the ceiling and the cover of the congregation in a flowery cover; splutterings of the cough and the laugh, the sharp intake of breath on all sides. There are about 30 of us in all, a mix of misfits, ranging from a self-proclaimed pothead granny, whose eyes seem to move independently of one another, a pair of Harold & Kumar wannabies taking selfies at the altar. And then there’s Lee: a former Bible quiz champion, raised in a strict evangelical Christian home, he has the credentials of a preacher if not the look: bushy-bearded hipster and the long messy hair, dark bags under his eyes and the smell of old smoke on his shirt. It feels more like the start of an AA meeting of a spiritual encounter. But then he begins to speak.

Timeout: arcade games in the downstairs lounge, where members can also play table tennis. Photo: Ryan David Brown for the Observer

“To be an elevationist [the term I coined for the theology of the new church] means to be an explorer,” Lee begins. “Our spiritual journey is one of self-discovery, not a dogma. We believe that there is not a way of solution to life’s big questions. This is simply a place of support for each one of us to find a path to our own spirituality, whatever that may be.” Think of it as the pick ‘n’ mix of beliefs. There is no doctrine, no religion, no scripture passage or book. Simply select bits of any of the religions of the world to work for you, or to do something for yourself, mix everything together, and see if you have a good taste. “There are many ways to be an elevationist as there are elevationists,” Lee says. Spirituality should not be a prescription; it should be an adventure. It is about seeking, not being told what to find.

It is an idea that will strike a chord with many people. The church attendance in the uk is in decline. Last year only 1.4% of the population attended Sunday Anglican services – the lowest level ever recorded. There is a significant demographic of people who simply can’t relate to organized religion, or directly oppose in principle. Being able to explore their own path, within a space of support, could help to fill this widening spiritual deficit.

But here is where you can lose. That journey of self-discovery, Lee says, is reinforced by the ritual consumption of cannabis. “We have been programmed to behave and think a certain way,” he says. “The Cannabis helps elevationists tear down those false realities.”

It is easy to reject. Does watching Star Trek and eating peanut M&Ms count as a spiritual path? But, in fact, the use of cannabis has long been part of the religion, of ancient China, the shamans current Rastafarians: the induction of altered states of consciousness has been a cornerstone of the belief from time immemorial. And even without the use of drugs, either spinning Sufi dancers or drums of the voodoo priests, or even a simple prayer or meditation, taking in the mind to a higher plane, has always been a path to the divine, you may conceive that to be.

Badges of honor: variety of glass of marihuana in leaf form decorative pieces on display in the church hall. Photo: Ryan David Brown for the Observer

But perhaps even more important is the space itself. Winston Churchill said “we shape our buildings and thereafter they shape us.” The setting means something. At the beginning, I could not help laughing under my breath. But as I listened to Lee speak, something strange began to happen: the church gave gravitas to his words, in a way a pub, club or social plane could never.

After, we were on the banks of the church and talk. Yes, I get stuck in a 15 minute conversation about X-Men; yes, there is a lot of talk about the order of the pizza, and the below “after the party” is a stoner’s paradise with table of ping-pong, table games, a full table set out with every munchie imaginable. But really speak to us, also. There is Emilee, 26-year-old, who uses marijuana to help cope with the chronic pain; and 40-something “Rockin ‘” Ray, who started smoking as a teenager to help his Attention Deficit Disorder. “We want to keep the community part of the church,” Lee said, “the music and the singing and seeing friends, but to do away with the dogma.”

I sit back, the head in the pews of the church and let the psychedelic colors and the smell of sensimilla smoke to drift through my mind. This could be the start of something; it is possible to, churches like these pop up all the legalized States. But it is possible that also just went up in smoke.

You can find more information in elevationists.org