Colorado cannabis churches are surprised to find themselves in court, when their main gig is smoking a plant that's already legal.
After all, they point out, here in the first state to legalize pot, the only thing that gets bent more than our citizens is the pot rules.
Growing more plants than you're legally allowed to? Carrying more than an ounce? Smoking in a public park? Cops don't much care.
But say you smoke weed for a higher power, and cops clamp down like a lobster claw.
Six months ago, the International Church of Cannabis opened in West Wash Park. With its giant mural from famous artist Kenny Scharf and the "Sistine Chapel of Pot" from visionary Okuda San Miguel — who is on the cover of Rooster Magazine this month — it was funky addition to Denver, a suddenly vibrant city. Once a week, its members — called Elevationists — gather to smoke, have a barbecue and listen to a band and a speaker. A few times a week there's high yoga.
But the minute it opened its doors on 4/20, the church tumbled into legal trouble. Undercover cops snuck into the launch party. They ticketed the leaders for having a public space where cannabis was being consumed.
The tickets were misdemeanors, the fines were just a few hundred bucks. But the church leaders refused to plead guilty, refused to take a plea bargain, refused to pay. They felt: we're talking about our basic freedoms, man. And so they've fought the charges in court.
"We'd like to stop this so that it isn't used on other churches," said Warren Edson, the Elevationists' lawyer.
The legal issues in the case are surprisingly complicated for such a small case, but church co-founder Steve Berke said it boils down to one thing:
"They hate us," said Berke. The City of Denver, the police, the mayor, he said, "they really hate us."
The city won't drop the charges, even though their case appears thin.
"I have no idea why," Berke says.
It is a bit of a mystery. America is a country that has always loved both religions and drugs, and no country pumps out drug religions like us. Among others, there was the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church, which said weed was its sacrament, and smuggled bushels of cannabis from Jamaica to Miami. There was the League of Spiritual Discovery — the LSD — which handed out tabs like Tic Tacs. The Peyote Way Church of God still openly doses cactus in deep southeast Arizona. Whether these are get-rich-quick schemes or sincere faiths — or something in between — America becomes richer for all of these faiths.
But cops don't see it that way. They usually try to squash them.
In fairness, some Colorado pot churches have been pretty flagrant. Back in the mid-'90s, there was the Sacred Herb Church in Boulder. They were so sure that the pot rules didn't apply to them that their leader, Michael Domangue, used to take his burning joint and blow smoke in cops' faces. Then he'd tell the cops it was his legal religious right to smoke it, and they couldn't prosecute him. The cops quickly arrested him and took him to court.
Greenfaith Ministry, a cannabis church on Colorado's Front Range, which has small gatherings for prayer and "pipe ceremonies," isn't nearly as flagrant. But it still feels harassed.
"We have never been left alone," Reverend Brandon Baker, also known as the 420 Reverend, said via text. He's faced complaints from zoning boards, harassment from city inspectors and "false" pot DUI charges, he said. State governments have committed hundreds of man hours and thousands of dollars prosecuting Greenfaith.
Why? Why all the fuss?
"Fear," Baker texted.
The government is afraid of losing tax revenue, he said, since churches don't pay taxes.
And law enforcement officers tend toward Christianity; mixing churches with weed profanes the big guy upstairs.
But it's bigger than that, Baker said: the government doesn't want "mind-expansion of the masses of sheep."
Pot makes you ask the question: Why are things this way, and not some other way?
Today, according to the government, there are are two reasons to smoke pot: recreational and medical. But real drug lovers know there are way more — intellectual, aesthetic, artistic, and in the case of these churches, spiritual.
Since the government doesn't want to admit there might be other reasons to smoke it, reasons that Americans have every legal right to, the government goes out of its way to discredit these churches. Which leads to some absurd scenes.
Such as: the scene in the Lindsey-Flanigan Courthouse recently.
On the stand, Lee Molloy, Elevationists co-founder, faced a strange line of questions from the city prosecutor, who was trying to prove that the Elevationists are a bullshit religion.
"Do you think you're Jesus?" the prosecutor said.
Molloy tried hard not to laugh. He noticed church co-founder Steve Berke, in the gallery, suppressing a giggle, too.
See, Molloy and Berke and the other members of the church are rational, modern, savvy, social media-loving folks. They aren't mystics. They aren't kooks.
"No," Molloy said. "I don't think I'm Jesus."
The prosecutor continued: "Do you believe in magic?"
Again, Molloy choked back a laugh. He said no.
That was it. But, based in part on these answers, a Denver judge denied them religious protections.
Religions have Jesus and magic, the courts have basically ruled, not weed.
Which brings up a stranger question: if Molloy was delusional enough to think he was magic Jesus man, would his church be allowed to break the marijuana laws? Do delusional people get out of the drug laws, but rational people have to follow them?
Berke thinks the government feels obligated to shut the Elevationists down. To set a precedent.
"They don't want more churches to open up," said Berke.
Which might happen. The International Church of Cannabis gets dozens of emails, Molloy said, from people bent on franchising. Like this guy we wrote about, intent on opening a similar church in Mississippi.
Branches in other states could be a nightmare for those governments, especially if Colorado recognizes the Elevationists as legit.
Perhaps for this reason, the city of Denver has been delaying and stalling on finishing prosecuting the Elevationists. They might be afraid they'll lose.
They were supposed to go to trial last week. At the last minute, with 16 church members cramming themselves into the gallery of a courtroom in the Lindsay Flannigan building in Denver's criminal justice complex, wearing church logo t-shirts, cannabis lapel pins and necklaces, the city of Denver postponed the case until February, saying it wasn't ready to argue.
Some church members sensed treachery.
"They're trying to bleed us and fuck with us," said Adam Mutchler, a co-founder. "The longer this drags on, the more it costs our church."
It's too bad. A trial would have been highly entertaining.
Since pot passed, Colorado has grown gloriously weird. Underground cannabis clubs party all night. Pot labs blow up. And giant rallies celebrate thee herb.
Sometimes the stoners win. Sometimes, the cops.
The 420 Reverend, Baker, thinks the churches, in the long run, will win. His church has three pending claims of religious discrimination. The International Church of Cannabis believes it might have a similar case, and could get millions in settlement.
If it keeps prosecuting the churches, Baker said, "The city is setting themselves up to waste a lot of time and money." And the god of pot — if there is one — smiles on.