Getting High and Holy at the International Church of Cannabis
by Joel Warner
Steve Berke, founder of the Denver nonprofit religious organization Elevation Ministries, stands on stage at his brand new International Church of Cannabis and takes two deep drags from a hefty joint. He closes his eyes, raises his head skyward, and exhales. In the wooden pews facing him, 50 or so people follow his lead. Smoke rises toward the heavens, settling in among the vivid Technicolor murals spread across the vaulted ceiling.
This minute of silence, a quiet celebration of the “sacrament of cannabis” held every day at 4:20 p.m., is apparently as religious as the International Church of Cannabis gets. Elevationism boasts no other regular services, no doctrine, no divine law, no requirement that its members convert from other religions. As Berke put it before lighting up for 4:20, “Elevationism is all about having your own spiritual journey.”
Whatever spiritual journey Berke is going on during his silent moment on stage, whichever personal deity the 35-year-old is praying to, he has a lot to be thankful for. Ever since the International Church of Cannabis first announced several weeks ago that it would be opening in Denver on April 20, it’s become a media darling. Never mind that it’s far from the first modern religious organization to consider cannabis a sacrament. In that regard, it’s beaten by Rastafarianism, the THC Ministry in Hawaii, the First Church of Cannabis in Indiana, the First Cannabis Church of Florida, the Temple of True Inner Light in Manhattan, the Greenfaith Ministry in northern Colorado, and the Stoner Jesus bible study group in suburban Denver, to name a few. Despite that, as Berke is quick to point out, Elevationism has quickly captured “six billion media impressions” — from stories in the New York Times and the Washington Post to front-page coverage in a Nigerian newspaper.
That exposure isn’t surprising. Everything about the International Church of Cannabis — from the clean-cut vibe of Berke and his fellow Elevationists to its 13,000 square-foot, 360-degree-video-ready church in a tony Denver neighborhood (purchased for a cool million by a trust run by Berke’s parents) to the fact that the organization appears to be tied up with a marijuana marketing and e-liquid company — seems designed to be as slick and attention-grabbing as possible. The fact that the church’s 4/20 launch led to a religious-freedom kerfuffle at the Colorado Capitol when a lawmaker tried to ban cannabis in churches? That just led to more clicks for Berke and his congregation — glory, glory, Hallelujah.
So is it all just a gimmick?
To be fair, religion and psychedelic drugs are more compatible than most folks think. While many major modern religious doctrines disapprove of illicit or psychoactive drugs, there’s an argument to be made that spirituality as we know it emerged from folks getting really high. “When ancient people were hunter-gatherers who were going from place to place, figuring out what things were good to eat and what things were dangerous, purely by accident they likely would have tried things with hallucinogenic effects,” says Richard J. Miller, a pharmacology professor at Northwestern University and the author of Drugged: The Science and Culture Behind Psychotropic Drugs. “It’s pretty reasonable that they would have interpreted their feelings in terms of gods or spirits speaking to them.”
After all, in the early 1960s Timothy Leary and his Harvard Psilocybin Project ran what came to be known as the “Marsh Chapel experiment”: They gave a group of students psilocybin before attending a Good Friday service. Nearly all the students reported undergoing a profound religious experience, compared to just a few in the control group. In 2002, the experiment was repeated at Johns Hopkins University with similar results, and a majority of participants reported the experience was “among the most personally meaningful and spiritually significant of their lives.”
Before the moment of silence at the daily 420 ceremony, Berke encourages those in attendance to introduce themselves to others in the pews once they smoked up. “Let’s be a little churchy afterwards,” he says. But once the quiet minute passes, the audience whoops and hollers and rock music begins blaring from a sound system on the stage.
It’s the same wherever you look. By the entrance, a large flat screen thanks the church’s corporate sponsors and encourages attendees to follow the Elevationists on Instagram. In the basement, a gift shop sells Cheetos and hipster trinkets. In a side yard, folks buy gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches from a food truck as smoke from their joints wafts over a neighbor’s fence.
When I sit down with Berke, who has opened the doors to media in hopes of getting publicity for his fundraising campaign, he insists the church is for real. Yes, he originally considered turning the building into condos or “a sick mansion for a Broncos player.” Yes, as a Miami Beach comedian and marketing executive he had a history of media stunts, including a run for mayor, a Donald Trump Twitter bot, and a parody Macklemore video. But some of his colleagues suggested he keep the building as a church, one devoted to cannabis. “I feel a moral obligation to do what I can to get this plant legalized,” he says.
It’s hard to argue with Berke’s point that he could have made more money by fixing and flipping this place. As for the idea that he’s doing this as a way around Colorado’s ban on marijuana cafes? “We are in Denver,” he says. “We can smoke weed everywhere.”
We’re interrupted by a man who introduces himself as Rockin’ Ray Fiore, who’s wearing an Elevation Ministries “High Priest” T-shirt that he’s decorated with a bit of white tape by his collar to make it look like a cassock. “I have been smoking since I was 11,” he says. “I smoke every day.” He gestures around him at the church. “I have been here three days in a row, and it’s been a godsend,” he says, tears in his eyes. “This is a blessing!”
The fact that Berke’s Elevationists don’t act at all like a normal church isn’t just odd — it could leave them open to prosecution. While the First Amendment protects people’s free exercise of religion, the courts usually only rule in favor of that right when there’s clear evidence of a formal religion. “It doesn’t look like there is any ritual, there is no reference to any religious script of any sort, there is no set of traditions that are even advocated,” says Mitch Earleywine, a psychology professor at SUNY Albany and board member of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “I’m afraid these guys are going to get busted.” Maybe that’s why while the International Church of Cannabis originally planned to open its doors to everyone 21 and older, it’s switched to an invitation-only approach. Now it functions more like a private club.
I’m sitting in the church nave, pondering the point of Elevationism, when I notice a man a few pews away staring at me intently. “I am doing the churchy thing,” he says, coming over and handing me his card: Jimmy Smrz, owner of Yoga on the Green Denver, whose catchphrase is “The science and spirituality of marijuana as medicine.” He explains he’s gone from being “the most devout atheist in the world” to “one of the most spiritual people you would ever know,” one who teaches Bhakti yoga. He says it’s all because of marijuana: “I couldn’t have done it. I couldn’t have gotten past my personal barriers, without the help of cannabis.”
When he discovered that this church was opening just a five-minute drive from his house? “I thought it was meant to be,” he says with a blissful smile.
As marijuana loses its stigma, there will surely be more folks like Smrz, people who decide to use the substance as a way to break away from our hectic, analytical modern lifestyle and connect with inner peace. After all, is claiming cannabis enhances spirituality any less outrageous than suggesting smoking weed makes you a better athlete or great at sex? And people like Smrz are going to need places to go get high and get holy — maybe that’s their home, maybe it’s a yoga studio, maybe it’s a place like the International Church of Cannabis, whether or not its founders really are as devout as the claim.
Smrz looks around at his fellow Congregationalists rolling joints and taking selfies as thumping music reverberates through the nave. “It will be interesting to see what it will turn into,” he says thoughtfully. “Right now it’s still looking for an identity.”
Still, from his point of view, whether or not they know it, every person here is being religious. “Many of these people might not consider themselves spiritual, but if you gather for 4:20, that’s a congregation,” he says. “If you roll a joint a certain way, it’s a ritual. If you have a box where you keep your stash, that’s an altar.”
Amen, brother. Amen.