Church of Cannabis co-founder fined $71 on marijuana charges
Church believed their services were private, exempt from pot law
One of the co-founders of Denver's International Church of Cannabis, Steve Berke, was found guilty on two counts having to do with burning and inhaling marijuana in his church.
Berke was fined $71.
The charges stem from the very first day the church opened its doors, April 20, 2017. The church is a century-old brick structure near downtown Denver whose ceiling is painted psychedelically bright colors by internationally-renowned artist Okuda San Miguel. It's owned by Berke's family; they had considered turning it into condos but instead turned it into a drug church.
On that high holy cannabis day, the church held a Grand Opening celebration where they didn't have confetti and balloons, they had joints and vape pens.
Cannabis is legal in Colorado but it may only be smoked in private, not "openly and publicly." That term is ill-defined. The church maintains that the event was private: to come, you had to contact the church online and ask for an invite and show your ID at the door.
But the jury of six Denverites apparently felt that the event was public, as Denver city prosecutors said.
While several people, including some cops, were turned away at the door, at least one undercover cop worked his way into the party without an invitation. This, Denver city prosecutors said, proved that the event was public, not private.
The charge was always a misdemeanor carrying a small fine. But rather than pay it, Berke and his co-founders fought it for nearly two years, through all kinds of legal twists and turns. They and other cannabis-right activists, had hoped they would be found not-guilty, and set a precedent that any pot event behind closed doors was a private event.
The guilty verdict is a kick in the stomach for the church, which still holds smoke-filled services every Friday. Many of its members seem to genuinely believe cannabis has a spiritual component. They're not the first.
Church co-founder Lee Molloy, who goes to trial himself Feb 12, called the charges "insane."
"This is simply a case of government stepping into your home, into your church," Molloy said. "And do you really want the government in those spaces?"
Berke's lawyer, Rob Corry, said the charges were a case of the city "trying to shut down this church, trying to shut down anything like this."