When contemplating the traditions and practices of a religious institution, cannabis use generally isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. But for the International Church of Cannabis, the customary practices of a religious group are blended with a culture of weed consumption to achieve higher spiritual enlightenment.
The church on the corner of Logan Street and Dakota Avenue stands tall and ivy-covered in the otherwise residential Washington Park neighborhood. The practitioners are known as Elevationalists, and they preach a mantra of “radical inclusivity,” meaning that the non-dogmatic religion welcomes those of all faiths and creeds. What one notices first on their visit to the church is the intricate artwork adorning both the interior and exterior of the 119-year-old building.
“The principles of Elevationism are very inclusive of art and artistic expression,” said Steve Berke, co-founder and director of the church.
Berke, whose eclectic history has ranged from collegiate tennis player to YouTube parody artist—his viral pot-themed “Thrift Shop” parody boasting over 17 million views—to mayoral candidate for the city of Miami, has been a proponent for the legalization of cannabis for years. The church battled local politicians, including State Representative Dan Pabon, who unsuccessfully attempted to ban cannabis use in religious venues in response to the church in 2017.
“I fought the city of Denver for two years for our religious liberties, so I take it pretty seriously,” Berke said.
“Public Defender,” a brightly colored statue by artist ZMK meant to represent the defense of the church’s right to exist, currently lies disassembled in the “Gandhi Garden,” the church’s side yard. In another legal controversy, the City of Denver’s Department of Transportation & Infrastructure claimed the statue to be a safety issue and demanded its removal.
As the commissioner of the artists, Berke assembled a broad collection of unique pieces from renowned artists which communicate the principles of the church. The exterior mural above the front doors depicts a swirling galaxy of planets with bright, cartoonish smiles. It was executed in just 24 hours by Los Angeles-based street artist Kenny Scharf.
One of the internal murals, painted by Ian Wilkinson, is entitled Evolution, and depicts humanity at different stages of development, each sitting in a different chair. A similar chair is placed next to the mural, inviting the viewer to sit alongside the other stages and participate in the evolutionary cycle.
The crown jewel of the church’s art collection is undoubtedly the ceiling-spanning mosaic of bright colors and angular shapes enveloping the walls of the central chapel. The mural, painted by Spanish artist Okuda San Miguel, is the centerpiece of the hourly light show entitled “BEYOND,” which features guided meditation and a psychedelic laser light show underscored by a playlist of classic rock.
“Because we’re not projecting on white walls,” Berke said, “that Okuda mural gives another dimension that really has a profound effect on our audience.”
It’s clear the combination truly resonates with the visitors: “BEYOND” is rated in the top 10 “Things to Do” in Denver on both TripAdvisor and Yelp. “I don’t think people would be coming to visit us if we were just a boring white-walled church,” Berke added. “The entire mural is meant for your own interpretation. We didn’t tell him, we didn’t instruct him to paint any specific imagery. He came without a sketch and he finished in six days,” Berke said.
Despite the lack of deliberate meaning, the mural shares motifs with many of the other pieces in and outside of the building: animals.
Another Wilkinson piece, located in the “Gandhi Garden”, depicts a bear and a dog with the inscription, “The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated,” a quote from Gandhi himself. Another piece, located on the building’s north side and painted by local Denver artist Patrick Kane McGregor, depicts Berke’s dog Munchie with the caption, “God Spelled Backwards.”
“He grew up in that church, he was raised as a puppy in that church. We are dog-friendly,” Berke said.
Some of Munchie’s toys can even be seen strewn across the floor of the church’s common area. The congregation is full of animal lovers.
“We’re not so different from them, you know, just a pair of clothes,” said practitioner John Magz, who helps lead the guided meditation element of “BEYOND.”
Once the meditation and show begin, the couple dozen visitors in attendance spread across the rows of pews and bean bag chairs decorating the room and hypnotically stare into the projections on display, given additional depth by the layers of color Okuda’s underlying painting provides. The sense of awe in the room is palpable.
“No matter what, nothing is finished. You gotta elevate to what your limits are,” Magz said.
Despite the controversies and struggles over the years, the church remains a bustling destination for locals, tourists, and believers alike. Their mantra of self-elevation resonates with the audience, and their art collection attracts visitors from around the world. They aim to dispel the “stoner” stereotype through devotion and talent, and there are no clearer examples than the murals.
“Art and creativity are an important part of one’s spiritual journey,” Berke said. “Thinking outside the box…art, laughter, these are all principles of Elevationalism.”