New religions that utilize cannabis in spiritual ceremonies may seem like an oddity, but marijuana has been used for centuries as a vehicle for spiritual awakening. From ancient Taoist shamans to modern-day Rastafarians, religious practitioners have incorporated weed to ward off evil spirits, cleanse sins, and achieve enlightenment.
Modern cannabis churches like Colorado's International Church of Cannabis create a spiritual sanctuary where people of all religions and spiritual beliefs can use cannabis to connect with others and create a supportive community. The International Church of Cannabis, specifically, has built a whimsical and surreal church-going experience for anyone who's interested.
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What is the International Church of Cannabis?
Located on 400 South Logan Street in Denver, Colorado, the International Church of Cannabis had a former life as a Lutheran church. More than a century old, this 13,000 square foot building was originally going to be converted into condominiums, until Steve Berke had the idea to leave it as a church where cannabis could be used as a sacrament.
Berke's interest in the marijuana industry came about after he suffered a couple of herniated discs shortly after going pro in tennis. Instead of addictive pills, Berke decided to use medical marijuana. Berke, a Yale graduate, and friends used crowdfunding and their own money to renovate the building and meet accessibility regulations for people with disabilities.
On April 20, 2016, the International Church of Cannabis opened its doors to an invite-only crowd that was over the age of 21. The church is open to the public from Thursday to Sunday, although it doesn't allow smoking for visitors. Members of the church, however, meet for Friday night service where they can partake in the medicinal herb and practice their religion, Elevationism.
What is Elevationism?
Elevationism is the official religion of the International Church of Cannabis in Denver. With estimates boasting over 1,400 members, Elevationism welcomes all. Members, referred to as Elevationists, use "the sacred flower" the bring out the best version of themselves, promote creativity, and improve the community.
As a religion with no sacred text or authoritarian structure, Elevationism uses marijuana as a vehicle for self-discovery in a group setting. They use cultural code words like "420" as religious symbols attaching a spiritual meaning to this time, date, and number. Instead of a higher spiritual power, Elevationists believe in the Universal Creative Force, leaving members to attach whatever meaning they want to the term.
The International Church of Cannabis' open and loose organization means no one has to convert to their religion. Instead, members can use Elevationism as a supplement to their current spiritual beliefs. If interested, the public can visit but can't consume weed unless they register online to become members.
Art, Music, and Spiritual Cannabis Use
Unlike traditional churches, the International Church of Cannabis incorporates multi-colored murals, surreal motifs, music, and food trucks to create a fun and lively experience. Although the church can't sell marijuana on its premises, consumption is allowed. Elevationists can partake in the sacred herb and revel in the vibrant and bright imagery on the walls and vaulted ceiling.
Artist Okuda San Miguel from Spain doesn't smoke cannabis, but loved the idea behind the church. In under a week, he painted a kaleidoscopic mural of animals and mythological figures on the ceiling using striking colors and collections of geometric shapes in the form of a bull and bear. In the rear wall, Okuda painted a couple of anthropomorphic figures looking out a window into the dark blue night sky.
Kenny Scharf, LA street art legend, painted parts of the facade in a colorful and animated constellation of surreal planets and stars. The heavy focus on art is reason enough to visit its premises. With an arcade lounge and ping pong table downstairs, the International Church of Cannabis is far cry from its Lutheran beginnings.
Cannabis Churches Across the States
The International Church of Cannabis in Colorado isn't the only church embracing cannabis use for spiritual development. The First Church of Cannabis in Indiana was created in 2015 by Bill Levin after Governor Mike Pence passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The act granted religious protections to corporations against laws that inhibited their right to exercise their religion. Members pay $4.20 every month and follow a list of commandments called the "Deity Dozen."
At the THC Ministry in Hawaii, cannabis use is seen as a fundamental human right provided by a higher power. On their website, they also tout that religious affiliation with them can protect you from arrest on cannabis charges. Federal law, however, has been unfavorable to the THC Ministry and other burgeoning cannabis churches across the country. In the case of the THC Ministry, multiple members were indicted for possession and trafficking charges.
Cannabis churches in California like the Sacred Source Sanctuary in San Diego or the Vault Church of Open Faith have been targets of raids for operating outside state laws and supplying untested cannabis products to consumers. Despite legal hurdles, cannabis churches are growing in an effort to establish pot use as a religious freedom. Organized groups like the Stoner Jesus Bible Study group are also rallying behind cannabis, albeit without a church location.
A Brief History: Religious Use of Cannabis
While legal repercussions are painting cannabis use in churches as just a way to smoke weed and avoid taxes, marijuana use and religion have gone hand in hand throughout history. One of the first known uses of marijuana for religious purposes was by ancient Taoist shamans in China in the 4th century BC. Shamans burned the plant as incense to remove evil spirits and return the self to a natural state.
In Hinduism, Vedic scriptures dating back 3000 years have depicted cannabis as a sacred plant offering that brings enjoyment and well-being. Bhang, an edible made of marijuana, has been used during the spring festival of Holi to cleanse sins. While cannabis consumption in India is illegal, its use during the festival is tolerated.
Buddhists have also been known to partake in cannabis for religious reasons. In fact, the founding Gautama Buddha is believed to have taken one hemp seed a day to reach enlightenment. Fast forward to ancient Greece where historian Herodotus recounted how cannabis was burned in tents and was used in funeral services.
Cannabis Churches Face Government Backlash
Modern cannabis-based religions have faced criticism and legal probes to determine their legality. In the 1930s, the Rastafarian religion was developed in Jamaica. The religion rejected materialism and espoused marijuana rituals to bring people together and get closer to God, known as Jah. Rastafarianism and recent incarnations of religions that use cannabis as a sacrament have faced opposition.
The International Church of Cannabis was cited after its grand opening when Denver police infiltrated the opening and cited the church because it broke Colorado Clean Indoor Air Act. The act prohibited smoking in public places expect for in private clubs and homes. An act was introduced to prevent marijuana use in churches, but was unsuccessful. The case against the International Church of Cannabis is still awaiting trial, but if convicted they could face forfeiture.
Politicians and community members have complained about parking, traffic, smell, and noise from the International Church of Cannabis. Although medicinal and recreational use of cannabis is legal across many states, not everyone is welcoming the industry with open arms. The International Church of Cannabis is attempting to change the negative stigma surrounding cannabis use in churches and at home, and providing locals with an inviting space to practice their own form of spirituality.