DPD sting leads to consumption citations for Denver Church of Cannabis leaders over 4/20 ceremony

DENVER – Three of the founders of Denver’s International Church of Cannabis were cited for public consumption of marijuana and violating the Colorado Clean Indoor Air Act for their 4/20 rally after several undercover Denver police officers were able to get inside the church’s event that day.

Steve Berke and two other founders of the newly-minted cannabis church, near Denver’s Washington Park, say the citations weren’t delivered until several days after April 20, something the Denver City Attorney’s Office confirmed. None of the other people at the ceremony were cited.

The church first opened its doors that day, and people were invited inside for a ceremony ahead of what the organizers say was a private ceremony at 4:20 p.m.

Berke says the church, which is run by Elevation Ministries, had a list of people who were to be let in for the 4:20 ceremony.

“They had to be invited, show their invitation and show ID at the door,” Berke told Denver7.

Berke said that two of the undercover officers were able to get on the list ahead of time, but the other was able to sneak in at an opportune time, he said. He said organizers weren’t aware at the time that the two undercover officers who got on the list were indeed police because they used aliases.

The public visiting hours were from noon until 3 p.m. that day, Berke said, and doors for the ceremony opened at 4. Berke says at one point, officers showed up and detained several security guards because one of them didn’t have identification, and that the third officer who got into the ceremony was able to enter at that time because Berke’s 72-year-old mother was the only person at the doors.

Berke said since the third undercover officer had been hanging around the church during the public hours, his mother let the officer in not knowing he wasn’t on the list.

He and his fellow church founders say they believe their event was private, and that thus, the officers should never have been there. He also added that one of the people cited "didn't smoke all day" and that there was "no proof" that he or the other cited organizer got high, though he admitted there was "lots of proof" other people had been consuming--none of whom were cited by police.

“It seems like religious persecution, like the city attorney has a vendetta,” Berke told Denver7 Monday, adding that he believed the city was “selectively enforcing the law.”

“If you go to a wedding, that doesn’t make the wedding a public event, it makes you a wedding crasher,” Berke said, calling the citations “horse s---.”

But the Denver City Attorney’s Office argued otherwise.

“It clearly wasn’t a truly-private event—that was the test,” said city attorney Marley Bordovsky.

“Whether a venue is public or private is a case-by-case analysis of whether it’s private or not,” Bordovsky added. She said if someone could walk up and be easily allowed in, the event is not necessarily considered private.

“If the police officers walked up to the door and nobody let them in, they would have left,” Bordovsky said. “The decision was made that this location and the events going on inside were public.”

She said Denver Police Department officers decided not to cite the founders of the church that day, postulating that the decision was made because there were a lot of people inside.

“We enforce all of the laws, and so if we have information that someone is violating public consumption rules, then we will enforce that,” she added. “We have done many of those over the years. This is nothing new.”

She said that the Denver Police Department initiated the investigation. When reached for comment on the case Monday, the department said it didn’t comment on pending cases.

And though the church is claiming religious liberty to operate as a private establishment allowing them to use marijuana as part of their religion, Colorado lawmakers and city officials have stressed there is no religious exemption to get around the state’s public consumption law.

Berke also told Denver7 Monday he believed at least one undercover officer had been attending services at the church in recent weeks.

He and the two others cited are due in Denver court next week for their preliminary hearing on the matters. They have hired an attorney in the case, and Berke said the founders were “considering legal options" and might sue.

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