A few months ago one of our founders Tim Piccin had the pleasure of chatting with Steve Berke - founder of the International Church of Cannabis in Denver. Though cannabis has long been consumed as a religious sacrament, the Int’l Church of Cannabis might be the first place on earth you can light up in an actual 113-year old Lutheran church complete with vaulted ceilings, stained glass and a dedicated congregation.
We were intrigued to learn more about this religious experience from the founder himself! According to Berke, The International Church of Cannabis is a 501C3 religious organization with a church where members can congregate to participate in the sacrament of cannabis and facilitate their spiritual journeys. It’s not a religion per se – Berke and his co-founders all come from different religious backgrounds – but members of the church are called Elevationists, meaning they believe that cannabis can accelerate and deepen one’s own spiritual journey, whatever that happens to be.
What’s the creation story behind Elevationism? Berke didn’t start out as a religious zealot, though he does have a colorful history that includes viral comedy, real estate, a publicly traded cannabis advertising and media company, and (no joke) two runs for mayor of Miami Beach. When Florida failed to pass medical marijuana legalization, Berke packed up his cannabis startup and moved everybody to Denver – the capital of the cannabis industry – where he and his team lived in the church and conceived of the idea. The Florida native had bought the church in 2014 as a cool real estate project, not anticipating it would turn into Denver’s #1 attraction on TripAdvisor and Yelp.
“We got a feel for the place, then we got to thinking,” Berke says, “How cool would it be if we actually kept this as a church? To keep the tradition of a place where people can gather, pray, and just feel safe. Again, we don't tell people what religion to believe in. It's all about elevating yourself to the best version of self, using cannabis as a tool for reflection and growth. It’s non-dogmatic. Really it’s just an artistic, creative, spiritual community of people coming together to help each other.”
The church garnered attention and notoriety when it first opened, as well as disputes with the city over the legality of open and public consumption of cannabis. “People were suspicious of us,” Berke remembers. He and his church-goers had to dispel stereotypes about cannabis users being less-than-savory neighbors. “I think we’ve been accepted now. We volunteer, we do classy events. People come for a visit and they get it. We’ve won the neighborhood”
Today, the Church is a veritable institution in Denver’s Washington Park area. The facade is painted by the iconic graffiti artist Kenny Scharf, and colorful murals by Spanish artist Okuda San Miguel line the inside walls.
But can you light up inside? That depends. You must be a member to partake, and events and services at the Church are invite-only. To become a Church member one must sign an online waiver confirming the belief that cannabis consumption is a sacrament. For tourists and visitors, Berke says, they created “The Beyond Experience”– a guided meditation, laser light, rock-n-roll immersive show projection-mapped on the Church’s vaulted ceilings. The show was a hit and is slated to cautiously reopen this week with private tours and limited crowd sizes.
Berke says that while they’d love to pop up in more locations like Los Angeles (or ideally, Baltimore!) The International Church of Cannabis isn’t a franchise, and expansion is tricky because of the differences in legality and public support for cannabis. Regardless, The Church’s mission is “to offer a home to adults everywhere who are looking to create the best version of themselves by way of the sacred plant” – and that’s something we can get behind. Good luck, Steve! Here's a link to check out a video of the Church in action!