One of the founders of the International Church of Cannabis was convicted of public consumption by a Denver jury on Friday after a trial in municipal court that took four days. Steve Berke, one of three of the church’s founders that have been charged in the case, was also convicted of violating the Colorado Clean Indoor Air Act by the six-person jury. Lee Molloy and Briley Hale, the other two founders of the church, are scheduled to appear in court on February 12.
All three church officials were cited at an event that was held on April 20, 2017. Announcements for the 4/20 celebration of the opening of the church had billed it as “the first large venue in the world where adults can legally consume cannabis in a social environment,” according to a report in local media. Invitations to the event were available via email.
After becoming aware of the planned celebration, the city attorney’s office sent the church a letter which said that “a belief in the benefits of marijuana does not constitute a religious belief.”
Eric Escudero of the Denver Office of Marijuana Policy said that because organizers planned to consume cannabis and anyone could get an invitation to the event, it qualified as open and public and therefore illegal.
“There are plenty of opportunities to consume in private in home and also opportunities with a social consumption license,” Escudero said.
Four-Day Trial Nets $50 Fine
The event went on as planned despite the warning, and was attended by at least eight undercover police officers who testified as witnesses during the trial. Prosecutors argued that because one of the officers was able to gain admission to the church without an invitation, the event qualified as public and open consumption of cannabis in violation of Colorado law. The jury agreed and convicted Berke, who was fined $50 and ordered to pay $21 in court costs.
After the trial, which took place last week after nearly two years of delays including a mistrial, Berke said that the conviction was a hollow victory for prosecutors.
“I don’t know how the city attorneys can claim victory because they spent tens of thousands of dollars and they’ve now collected a $50 fine,” Berke said. “I don’t know if taxpayers are furious about this, but I’m a taxpayer, and I would be furious if I knew that the city attorney spent four days trying somebody for a maximum $100 fine.”
Berke also said that what constitutes a religion is not up to the government.
“As far as the last time I checked, we have freedom of religion in this country,’ said Berke. “And because I believe cannabis helps me on my spiritual journey doesn’t give somebody else the right to say that’s not a valid religion.”
Rob Corry, Berke’s defense attorney, referred to a popular movie to describe the actions of the police in the case.
“We’ve all heard about ‘Wedding Crashers,’ ” Corry said. “Two actors get into weddings — that doesn’t make the movie called ‘Open and Public Weddings.’ They snuck into a private wedding. That doesn’t render the entire event open and public.”