“420” is not just a fun three-character term: it represents a sacred day in the cannabis community. This past 4/20 in Denver, “420” took on a new meaning as the International Church of Cannabis opened its arms to “Elevationists.”
While the church’s “religion” is called “Elevationism,” what its members follow isn’t necessarily a religion as much as a spiritual thought. Steve Berke, one of the church’s founders, tells me that “We aren’t saying we invented Elevationism. Elevationism goes back in history and the history of marijuana dates to ancient China. We’ve given it a title and a place of worship.”
And the place of worship is really what Elevationism is all about. Just as ancient churches and castles were transformed into art by premier artists (see: Michelangelo) throughout history, so was the cannabis church’s aesthetic design.
The church itself, located in Denver’s Washington Park neighborhood, was built over 100 years ago to serve as a more traditional place of worship. The outside of the building features a graffiti mural by Los Angeles street artist Kenny Scharf, whose artistic efforts look like all the characters in PacMan ingested shrooms:
Once inside the church, there are two floors: the downstairs is a chill out area equipped with arcade-style video games, a piano, and a gift shop:
The other floor is the place where visitors can consume cannabis — and this chapel area or sanctuary is the showstopper.
Created by renowned international artist Okuda San Miguel over the course of six days with the help of four assistants, the church’s chapel features a kaleidoscope of rainbows forming existential images. Entering the chapel feels like a far-out trip and one that has inspired internet commenters to say it looks more like the church of LSD than the church of cannabis. They’re not wrong.
Okuda’s art is called “Pop Surrealism,” and if this work’s intention is to enhance the viewer’s high, then Okuda certainly succeeded. Marijuana.com spoke with Okuda, who told us that his purpose in any work is always transforming the place into a more positive space:
The goal is changing the world into freedom. [The Church of Cannabis] is my third church and each one was a very important metamorphosis that put no borders between religions, cultures, and races. Those special churches join different people and the only commandments are love, art, freedom, respect, and peace.
The vibrant colors signify “positivity, love and multiculturality” while they also harken back to a standard church’s stained glass design. But the actual images remind you that this isn’t your forefathers’ church: this is a weed church. “I painted a surreal walk from figurative altar skull and animals to more abstract and geometrics patterns. The transformation plays with the lights of the ceilings,” said Okuda.
Staring into Okuda’s work is a lot like staring into Monet’s Lily Pads at the L’Orangerie: you will get lost, and you will wonder. Perhaps you’ll wonder who the trippy dog on the chapel’s ceiling is or why your state doesn’t have legal weed. Or perhaps, you’ll simply wonder where to find the nearest 7-11.
Whatever the journey is, it’s entirely up to you — and likely, your high. As Berke said, the church is “really supposed to be a quiet space for people to come and have their own spiritual journey.”
At least during 4/20 weekend, the church’s aura was anything but quiet. Tourists and locals alike flooded this new wave of religion’s house of worship throughout the high holiday while media outlets swarmed for stories on this new gospel. Over the course of the weekend, the church saw live music acts and a comedy show.
All of the attention the church received throughout the weekend resulted with police threatening to throw the church’s founder in jail. To combat the threat, the church required all church entrants to register for church memberships. If you weren’t on the list, you weren’t allowed in.
Since Denver prohibits cannabis clubs, multiple venues in the city have found a loophole that allows them to host private, RSVP events with cannabis consumption — the church falls into the private host category. While Denver’s cannabis consumption law remains gray, the church’s organizer also believes they’re protected by the First Amendment and the right to freely exercise their religion.
During 4/20 weekend, cannabis was only consumed at certain, designated times and only in the church’s chapel. Moving forward, anyone can join the church online and thus become an Elevationist.
For the over 100-year-old church to meet its full potential, the church needs amenities like a new boiler and an elevator for wheelchair access. As Berke tells me, one of the church’s goal is to make its Washington Park area a better place. To accomplish those upgrades, an IndieGogo has raised $35,000 of its $100,000 goal.
The church’s organizer’s plan to use the space not just as a place of periodical worship, but as a private venue for city events. As long as the city doesn’t step in — and subject itself to a First Amendment legal battle — Denver’s cannabis community has found a new place to congregate.
And it’s an exeptional work of art.
Photos courtesy of Steven Conley