Inside a century-old church perched in a Denver suburb sits a congregation challenging tired definitions of religion. The church poses a few simple questions: why can’t a church burn candles and blunts? Why can’t a church have both an altar and a video game arcade? According to Lee Molloy, co-founder of The International Church of Cannabis, spirituality should never come with a set of terms and conditions.
A few years ago, Steve Berke and Lee Molloy found themselves in Colorado drawn by the prospect of becoming involved in the state’s steadily growing cannabis economy. Steve Berke’s family had just acquired a 113-year-old church with the intention of converting it into condos or a novelty-mansion for a millionaire NFL player. After witnessing first hand Denver’s of-the-people cannabis culture, Molloy and Berke got an idea; what if they used the building for what it was originally intended? In April 2016, they opened the International Church of Cannabis.
From the outside, the red-bricked columns covered in creeping English ivy look no different than any other parish church found in a sleepy suburb across America. Inside, though, it’s like if St. Peter’s Basilica had been painted during a Grateful Dead Concert. Spanish artist Okuda San Miguel designed the mural in just six days of freehand painting, creating a kaleidoscope of vivid colors and intricate patterns that conjure memories of summer nights on acid. The church also features an arcade, couches, a rec-room for potlucks and a stage with overhead lighting so that parishioners can listen to live music as they blow milky tokes during service.
But it’s not all entertainment. At its core, it’s philosophy. Elevationism is a new class of religion that forgoes idolism, restrictive dogma, and moral judgment. The belief goes something like this: dogma acts like a leash holding back people from spiritual exploration and self-discovery. The International Church of Cannabis believes that all religions are essentially saying the same thing—treat people and the earth with the same dignity you want for yourself.
According to Molloy, cannabis is more than a plant— it’s a tool that can help users transcend socially-ingrained notions of what spirituality is and the preconceptions of who we are as individuals. Molloy tells me “Cannabis can help give us access to the source code of our brain, it helps us to break down our delusions and elevate our reality.” He says one of those delusions is the inertia of prayer. Rather than craning their necks in silent incantation, Elevationists prefer to volunteer their time.
But the church hasn’t been sheltered from controversy. Restricted by Colorado’s lawful consumption laws, it was forced to act as a private entity. Their plans to host concerts have drawn accusations of business interests being disguised as religion. Rep. Dan Pabon went as far to say that the church is offensive to religions everywhere. Still, The International Church of Cannabis is well within its First Amendment rights and in compliance with Initiative 300, which bans anyone under the age of 21 from being present while weed smoke unfurls.
Molloy responds to suspicions mildly, “I understand that people are afraid of change and things they do not understand, and it is true that Elevationism is a little out-of-the-box to those trapped in traditions. However, we have been trying to prove ourselves as good neighbors, and I believe that time will one day vindicate us.”
Molloy thinks that these types of negative reactions are the result of the couch-locked stoner branding that has misled people since Reefer Madness and that’s since been embraced by comedies like Half Baked and Harold and Kumar.
Molloy says “it is worth noting that this narrative has been self-inflicted by the likes of Cheech and Chong, along with other unimaginative, decades-old caricatures in the media.”
Far more diverse than the stoner label, Elevationists are mothers, fathers, doctors, 9/11 responders, digital media consultants and everything in between. As Denver marijuana attorney Christian Sederberg pointed out in a piece in The Cannabist, Elevationists smoking marijuana in a church is no more unusual than when Christians drink red wine. If we are going to be completely honest with ourselves, when compared to a room full of people pretending they’re drinking the blood of Christ, the imagery of parishioners smoking a flower is a lot less creepy.