It's Friday night and I'm at church getting stoned. Around me, congregants of all ages are pulling colorful pipes and carefully rolled joints from their bags and pockets, lighting up and inhaling slowly, with purpose, before passing their paraphernalia down the pew. Dudes in baseball caps mingle with young women in sundresses; retirees rub shoulders with hipsters; a guy in a “Hemp Hustler” T-shirt shimmies down the aisle. When the slender, well-dressed man sitting next to me hands me a blunt, I take a drag. The mood is exuberant, anticipatory—like a party’s getting ready to start.
Entering the rainbow-streaked sanctuary of the International Church of Cannabis—which looms large amid the neat, unassuming rows of houses in this sleepy residential Denver neighborhood—feels like having some kind of religious fever dream, or like visiting the Sistine Chapel on acid. Color literally drips down the walls. Before the church opened its doors to the public on April 20, 2017, Spanish painter Okuda San Miguel spent six days bringing to life a wildly psychedelic vision involving massive creatures with beaks, wings, and sparkling eyeballs. The murals’ creation story reads like a minor miracle: San Miguel didn’t even have a sketch before he started.
Tonight, puffs of smoke float up into the kaleidoscopic ceiling overhead as church cofounder Steve Berke, 37, a former all-American tennis player, ascends to the podium in Converse sneakers. Behind him, two blue plush velvet chairs shaped like hands make a peace sign—and hold joints. At cannabis church, there are no hymns, no Bible; there’s not even a pastor. (This evening, we’ll hear from two cannabis activists who host a web series called Pot Talk on WorldViral TV.) The house religion is Elevationism, described on the church’s website as the belief (or “lifestance”) that weed can accelerate and deepen a person’s individual spiritual journey, whatever that happens to be.
From the evidence in the chapel, it truly is a come-one, come-all creed. Some Elevationists practice other religions, too (Berke himself is Jewish, another of his four cofounders grew up Evangelical). Here, believers don’t have to “convert” to anything; they just have to fill out an online application confirming that yes, cannabis is a “spiritual sacrament” in their life. Why they would bother to do this, and not just get stoned on their own couches at home, is the question I’ve come to answer. According to Lucy, 28, a yoga teacher who sometimes leads classes at the church, “churches by nature have a high vibrational energy. Consuming in a community, in a ‘church’ setting, makes it an even more powerful experience.”