In 2003, Steve Berke was a professional tennis player when a back injury suddenly put his training on hold. During the rehab process, he was cast on Sir Richard Branson’s Apprentice-style show The Rebel Billionaire. He traveled to nine different countries with the magnate. He stayed at his house. At the wrap party, Branson lit a spliff and handed it to him, and that was Berke’s first experience with marijuana.
Off the show, he tried to get back on the tennis tour with prescriptions for Vicodin and Valium, plus everything from epidural injections to cortisone injections in his spine, but ultimately found the pain and side effects not worth tolerating. He turned instead to marijuana to finally help him sleep and lead a normal life — and ended up becoming a vocal marijuana activist, political candidate, and now founder of the Denver-based International Church of Cannabis, which officially opens its doors on this, the holy day of 4/20.
The church is a BYOC space where constituents — known as Elevationists — consume marijuana as sacrament to further their own spiritual journeys, whatever those may be. Inverse caught up with Berke just before the church’s debut to get its backstory and talk about what weed as religion will actually look like.
So smoking with Richard Branson was what started you on this path of marijuana activism — what were the other factors that led to getting the church off the ground and ready to debut?
That was my first introduction into marijuana. It broke the taboo in my head, where up until that point I hadn’t smoked and kind of looked down on people who did. I was brainwashed by the DARE program, quite frankly, and all the rest of the propaganda out there. But he changed my perception of it; if this modern-day James Bond can consume and still run a global corporation, how bad can it really be?
I started stand-up comedy when I was 27, and as I was finding my comedic voice I started bringing my guitar onstage and doing musical comedy, these Weird Al schticky parody songs. I wrote a couple that weren’t right for the comedy clubs, but this was right around the dawn of YouTube. I called my buddy and said, ‘do you want to make some parody music videos?’ This was around 2010. The third one was about marijuana activism, and it went viral and put me on the map as a marijuana activist. People were saying ‘this is great, we love you and you should run for office.’ So I did. I ran for mayor of Miami Beach, and it was probably the first-ever social media political campaign, where I used my YouTube channel to bring awareness to certain local issues. And before I knew it it was the front page of The New York Times, Maxim, French TV, Italian TV. Nobody had ever used a YouTube channel the way I was using it, for politics, as part of the decriminalized marijuana movement.
By 2014 so many marijuana brands were reaching out asking us to make videos, and that’s when the lightbulb went on that there’s no advertising for this entire industry. I would say that’s the second-biggest problem in marijuana today; no platform like Google will accept your ad dollars. You need a platform to reach consumers, so I started a company called Bang Digital Media.
In 2015, I was in Denver for 4/20 weekend. I came to the Cannabis Cup and the moment I flew in I arranged to have breakfast with one of our influencers — Bang Digital signs social influencers to be part of out network — and right across from us was this huge church up for sale. And I’m one of those people who just always calls when I see a ‘For Sale’ sign, and I think they were asking $1.3 million, which didn’t seem absurd for the size of the property. So it was a happy accident, we didn’t even buy it to make it a church of cannabis … originally maybe we were thinking condos or rental apartments. Some people think you start something like this [for tax exemptions] and I’m just like, ‘bro, if I was going to make this [more profitable] I wouldn’t have made it a church.’ As we were in Miami working on Bang and building our platform, a couple of people suggested we actually keep it as a church and build this community where the common thread was not a single God or dogma, but the fact that cannabis had a spiritually positive influence on their lives. Marijuana as a spiritual sacrament has existed all the way back to ancient China. We don’t claim to have created Elevationism, but we’ve certainly given it a title and a place of worship. Kind of our own Mecca.
Colorado’s at the forefront of the legal weed movement — does that mean you’ve been pretty well received, or are there still haters?
Surprisingly we haven’t received any hate mail. This is all new territory. I’m meeting with the city attorney [after this], then I’m meeting with city councilmen. The neighborhood from what I gather is not concerned about the actual use, they’re concerned about how this might affect their daily lives, like the noise and traffic congestion and parking. If we mitigate the challenges properly, I think we’ll be accepted into this community with open arms. They just don’t know who we are yet.
I know one of the central ideas to Elevationism is that it can coexist with other religions — but what services will you offer? What are the day-to-day practices of being an Elevationist at this church?
We consider this to be more of a supplement — you can be an Elevationsist and a practicing Christian, a practicing Jew, it’s not exclusionary. This is an experiment. We’re going to find out [what daily life looks like]. We’re kind of new to the Denver community, and we’re asking the community to help us. If there’s someone who wants to lead a yoga class then by all means, here’s our space. A lot of people practice yoga while elevated.
We know we want to have our 4/20 ceremony [relaxed communal smoking at 4:20 p.m. among the congregation’s existing 50 members or so] here every day. When we hit our stride, weekly services. Will they be on Sunday morning? I don’t think so, probably Thursday or Friday evenings. We need more members; in order for this to be financially viable we need a strong membership or we’re not going to be able to pay our bills. People always assume a church will be there forever, but quite frankly, if we don’t get the right support we’re not going to stay in business. We have rent, electric bills, gas bills like everyone else … our opening weekend is a fundraising weekend.
We’re not sure how we’re going to do membership; we’re flushing that out as we speak. Are we going to charge $10 a month? $20? What services will we provide? It’s not [tightly] structured … that’s one of the things about Elevationism, everyone is each on their own spiritual journey. This is the first public foray into, ‘alright, we’re opening our doors for everyone to see, teaching people what Elevationism is in a public forum.’
I saw that the church is 21-and-over. Any other restrictions or rules about the weed itself?
One thing we don’t allow is dab rigs and concentrates, and people can’t just bring in blow torches because it’s a safety issue. We’re not telling people they shouldn’t dab, but just not on our property. It’s a bring-your-own-weed church, we don’t provide any weed. We don’t sell pipes or bongs or paraphernalia, our gift shop is exclusively art and T-shirts. We can’t sell weed in our church, so if someone was sharing a joint and [the other person] said, ‘hey, let me give you a couple of bucks,’ don’t, because we could get in trouble with the city.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.