View from the USA: Holy smoke

Under a psychedelic roof in Colorado, the bong-toting congregation of the International Church of Cannabis have found their higher calling

By Aaron Millar
Published 4 Oct 2017, 09:00 BST, Updated 12 Jul 2021, 11:48 BST
Aaron Millar.

Aaron Millar.

Photograph by Jacqui Oakley

I'm sitting in the pew of a 113-year-old red-brick church filled with psychedelic murals and a preacher who looks like an extra out of a Cheech & Chong movie. All around me, wisps of smoke rise to the rafters and shroud the altar in clouds of sweet sensimilla. The International Church of Cannabis may sound like the name of a Bob Marley song, but in Denver, Colorado — America's new mecca for legalised marijuana — it's a real thing; bong-toting congregation and all.

On the surface, it seems ridiculous — if there's a church of cannabis, does eating an entire grab bag of peanut M&Ms in one sitting constitute spiritual practice? Are Star Trek reruns a form of scripture? Colorado legalised recreational marijuana in 2012 and, overall, it's been overwhelmingly well received. Last year, in this state alone, a staggering $1bn literally went up in smoke. In the next decade, the industry, nationwide, is predicted to be worth 50 times that. So far, 26 states and the District of Columbia have legalised marijuana to some extent, and the rest are toppling like dominoes. A church of cannabis may seem shocking to us, but in the United States of Legal Green, it could be argued its founding has merely been the next logical step. 

As I enter the building, I'm stunned into silence. The interior — created by Spanish artist Okuda San Miguel — is, if nothing else, a magnificent piece of art. It's like the love child of the Sistine Chapel and a Pink Floyd album cover. Every surface is adorned in geometric patterns of red, yellow and blue, like the inside of a giant kaleidoscope; stars and eyes appear out of nowhere; two giants with spherical beaks emerge from the stained-glass windows like some kind of LSD-fuelled hallucination. Perhaps most impressively of all, it took Okuda just six days to complete — let me guess: he rested on the seventh.

The service begins with a ritual lighting of joints. There are about 30 of us in all, ranging from a stoner grandma to a couple of giggling 20-something Harold and Kumar lookalikes. We're urged to pass 'the sacrament' around, as co-founder Lee Molloy, a bushy bearded 46-year-old former bible quiz champion with glazed eyes and the whiff of stale smoke about him, begins the sermon. 

"Being an Elevationist [the term they've coined for the doctrine of their church] means being an explorer," Lee says. "We believe there's no one-path solution to life's big questions. Spirituality should be about self-discovery, not dogma. This chapel is simply a supportive place for each of us to find a pathway to our own spirituality, whatever that may be." Think of it like the pick 'n' mix of religion: take a little bit of whatever world beliefs take your fancy, mix it all together, and see if it tastes good. 

But here's where they may lose you: that path to self-discovery is, says Lee, accelerated by getting high. "We've been programmed to think in certain ways," he explains. "Cannabis is the source code to our brain; it helps us tear down those false realities."

Yes, that sounds like the time I was 17 and figured out the meaning of life after ingesting something ambiguous my mate Ben brought round (it was something to do with circles or a song, we can't remember). Yes, there's a lot of talk of ordering pizza after the service. And yes, I had an uncontrollable giggling fit when someone blew bong smoke into the preacher's face. But as the sermon goes on, a funny thing happens: I start to agree. Why should religion be a choice between primary colours, instead of a painting we create ourselves? Why is a little something to raise the spirits such a crazy idea? After all, altered states have been a cornerstone of divine connection since we first started banging drums on the African savannah. Being in a church gave gravitas to his words. 

Perhaps that's the point. This group could meet up in a social club or someone's front room, but it wouldn't be the same. The setting matters; it makes their ideas real. Their method won't sit well with everyone but, in the end, surely the destination is more important than the vehicle they take. And if it ruffles a few religious feathers along the way, then so be it. Stick on that Bob Marley song and pass the dutchie to the left-hand side. I've found my higher calling.

Published in the October 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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