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Since opening in Denver over three years ago, the International Church of Cannabis has received regular media and tourism attention for its ornate display and occasional weed-friendly demeanor. Yet the practicing religion of the church, a form of pot-friendly spirituality called elevationism, has received little attention.
So what happens at 400 South Logan Street when the Elevationists gather? For church members and the couple Samantha and Tyler Prock, it’s about using the plant to connect with their community and spirituality. Both Procks were raised Methodistically in East Texas and had little religious diversity. They felt welcomed by the Church’s regular general meetings, which allow cannabis use when the doors are closed to the public.
“Either you’re a Christian or you have nowhere to go,” Tyler recalls of her upbringing. “It’s probably gotten better since we grew up in the 90s and early 2000s, but it was ‘my way or the highway’.”
The Procks joined the Church of Cannabis shortly after it opened in 2017. Although anyone can practice elevationism, only church members who are at least 21 years of age are allowed to attend church services and use cannabis in a social setting. The Procks feel that their membership has reconnected them to religion after becoming disillusioned with Texas religious culture.
“I feel like cannabis brought us back to our spirituality while growing up in East Texas like Republican Jesus turned us away from religion and spirituality,” says Samantha.
The Procks consider themselves cannabis refugees moving from Texas to Colorado to legally consume cannabis, which they believe serves a long list of different medicinal uses. The couple say it has been criticized by relatives for joining the Church, with comments ranging from disapproving to outright condemnation. However, they hope that their daily cannabis use will change the minds of their loved ones in the future.
Procks’ story shares similarities with those of other church members, most of whom see cannabis as a way to connect with others and have a higher power. However, the church sees more tourists than practicing elevationists.
A popular destination for art lovers, the 113-year-old church is adorned on the outside with a mural by Kenny Scharf, while visitors are greeted by colorful floor-to-ceiling murals by Okuda San Miguel. There’s also a nostalgic common room with arcade games, pop art, and merchandise. TripAdvisor currently lists the church with a five-star rating, promoting light shows, meditation classes, and pop-up markets as regular events ahead of the COVID-19 pandemic. (Cannabis use is prohibited to the public in church and can only take place during private general meetings and ceremonies.)
The art of the International Church of Cannabis, none of which has cannabis references, is in line with the goals of the founders of Elevationism who want to reinvent dogmatic religions while creating a sense of community in their place of worship, according to co-founder Steve Berke.
You don’t have to be a member of the International Church of Cannabis to become an Elevationist, but you do if you want to partake of the plant there. As Berke points out, the ritual use of cannabis to achieve “a better version of the self” existed long before he and a group of friends opened the church. There are very few rules, rituals, or symbols in elevationism, he explains what is intended; the founders want to keep the religious overtones loose. Harsh terms such as “exalted state” and “universal creative power” allow individual members to tailor their religious experiences to suit themselves, adds Berke.
Steve Berke, co-founder of the International Church of Cannabis.
The Internal Revenue Service recognizes elevationism, so the International Church of Cannabis is a religious tax-exempt organization. “It’s a simplified religion when it comes to rituals and rules because we wanted to reject some aspects of organized religion that the co-founders really hated,” explains Berke.
Berke’s family initially bought the building. As an entrepreneur, part-time comedian, and two-time mayoral candidate of Miami Beach, Florida, Berke insists that the church was organized for community purposes rather than promotional purposes, but the church has received reasonable attention from the media and local law enforcement since it opened. Berke’s dispute with the Denver Police Department over alleged public cannabis use during a 4/20 party in 2017 ran through the local judicial system for over two years, with Berke, the Church, and its co-founders being the subject of national media coverage during that time.
According to Berke, many members use elevationism as a complementary religion, and the only rule is the golden rule: treat others as you would like to be treated yourself. “We have elevationist Christians and elevationist Buddhists, but we also have elevationist atheists and agnostics,” says Berke. “Why can’t we have a spiritual community without authoritarian structures or tell people what to do?”
Since elevationism takes on different meanings for different members, it is almost impossible to characterize the religion – but that, according to members, is the point. Rituals and services, usually held once or twice a week, are used to help members find their way into elevated states of being. (Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the community no longer meets in person, but offers virtual services via Zoom and Facebook Live.)
In personal rituals, members light their cannabis on the same candle. Each service begins with the ritual and consumption of cannabis while the Elevationist Meditation is recited. “We thank the original energy of creation. We light this candle to celebrate our freedom and to remember those who are not free to join us. We support each other on our individual spiritual path and welcome everyone as a family in love and peace to burn their sacrament with us today ”, it says in the meditation.
The new part of the International Church of Cannabis is the ritual use of marijuana, or “the sacrament” as the members call it. Berke emphasizes that members are not required to consume cannabis, but that many do so in order to achieve an elevated state.
In a virtual service in April, co-founder Adam Mutchler told viewers that the opening meditation and cannabis use help “clear your mind, so you can get into the right environment to really have some interesting conversations and thoughts about the world, yourself and what you are to have “to lead do with yourself.”
Born in part from skepticism about traditional religion, Elevationism encourages practitioners to broaden their perspectives and look critically at the world. Sunday services usually include a variety of guest speakers, including technology CEOs, college professors, filmmakers, musicians, artists, and parishioners, who discuss their personal experiences. After virtual and personal services, the church members discuss the service; Berke says the church offers snacks after personal services because consuming sacraments makes members hungry.
To outsiders, this may seem like smoking weed with friends and feeding the nibble, but practicing elevationists like the Procks have a much deeper experience of attaining an “elevated state”.
“My mind has moved a little away from this reality. You are calm, you are happy, you have an easier and more direct connection with the divine, ”says Tyler.
For Samantha it brings clarity. The ritual lighting of the candle and the subsequent lighting of cannabis from the flame create community for them. “We are all the same flame,” she concludes.
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Clara Geoghegan is a graduate of the University of Colorado Boulder, where she studied anthropology with a focus on public health. She worked for Radio 1190’s News Underground and freelanced for Denverite. She is now the cannabis intern at Westword.