Marijuana

Jury Finds Cannabis Church Founder Guilty in 4/20 Party Case

Inside the International Church of Cannabis at 400 South Logan Street.
Inside the International Church of Cannabis at 400 South Logan Street. Lindsey Bartlett
On February 1, at the end of a four-day trial and after almost two years of legal battles, International Church of Cannabis co-founder Steve Berke was found guilty of public pot consumption in connection with a 4/20 party at the Denver church in 2017. He was fined $50 for public pot use and violating the Colorado Clean Indoor Air Act.

In an ongoing fight over the definitions of private and public, the Denver City Attorney's Office won this round, but the battle isn't over. Church co-founders Lee Molloy and Briley Hale are scheduled for trial on the same charges on February 12. "Hopefully the city attorney got their trophy and dropped the case against Briley and Lee," Berke said after the verdict came in. "They had to double down on this and fight it all the way, though."

And they weren't the only ones fighting. After Berke was pronounced guilty, a juror approached his attorney, Rob Corry, in tears, and said: "I fought my ass for him, but the other jurors didn't listen. ... The whole time we were [deliberating], everyone else said, 'Guilty.'"

After talking with the juror, Berke said he's considering filing for a mistrial. At the very least, he's likely to appeal the verdict.

The charges stemmed from the church's inaugural 4/20 event in 2017, during which undercover Denver police officers say they were able to freely enter the consumption-friendly portion of the celebration. Berke and his attorneys argued that the consumption portion of the event was private and required an invitation to get inside.

Listings on Eventbrite and Facebook indicated that the church's celebration was public, Assistant City Attorney Rebekah Watada argued, though Berke says those listings were only for the public portion, which was a separate event.

Watada and Assistant City Attorney Casey Federico brought in six current and former members of the Denver Police Department to testify, several of whom had gained entry to the 4/20 bash — though how they did so was a matter of dispute. The defense argued that the officers deceived church members to get inside.

click to enlarge International Church of Cannabis co-founder Steve Berke isn't shy about what his church is used for at certain times. - MARIA LEVITOV
International Church of Cannabis co-founder Steve Berke isn't shy about what his church is used for at certain times.
Maria Levitov
At the trial, Berke's attorney argued that the church at 400 South Logan Street was zoned as a residence, which an official with Denver Community Planning and Development confirmed. However, the zoning official would not say whether that classified the church as a dwelling at all times, which would have made it exempt from the Colorado Clean Indoor Air Act.

Prosecutors also brought up a meeting between church founders, city attorneys and the Denver Department of Excise and Licenses before the April 20, 2017, event, at which the church's consumption-friendly plans were discussed.

In a letter dated April 14, 2017, to attorney Christian Sederberg, who represented Berke at the time, Denver District Attorney Marley Bordovsky warned that the church couldn't argue that the religious beliefs of Elevationism, which is practiced there, made open cannabis consumption legal, and that "there are no constitutional protections for an individual who permits the public consumption of marijuana on any premises under his or her control."

The letter left some wiggle room, but not much. "Open and public consumption of marijuana is not legal," Bordovsky wrote. "Even if entry was restricted to persons 21 years of age or older and to people who become members of the 'church,' under the law, it could still be considered a public event for purposes of marijuana consumption. As you know, a truly private event would not run afoul of the laws prohibiting public consumption; however, as currently promoted by your clients, it appears that they are planning an event that will be open to the general public."

Watada harped on that in her closing statement. "It was supposed to be a historic day. They were going to have an event, they were going to involve people and let them smoke to their heart's content," she said. "What Berke was doing was creating an invite so people can openly and publicly smoke marijuana."

It took the jury two hours to find Berke guilty.

Watada and Federico declined to comment after the verdict, but Watada had made their feelings about Berke's involvement clear during the closing statement: "He abided, he helped, he assisted and he promoted the social consumption event."

The verdict won't change the church's plans, Berke says, or how he and other members practice and promote Elevationism. "Everything is going forward as usual," he concluded. "It doesn't change anything. If they want to come after me again, so be it."
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Thomas Mitchell has written about all things cannabis for Westword since 2014, covering sports, real estate and general news along the way for publications such as the Arizona Republic, Inman and Fox Sports. He's currently the cannabis editor for westword.com.
Contact: Thomas Mitchell