Photo via the International Church of Cannabis
The International Church of Cannabis, which first opened in Colorado last year, went to trial this week with the City of Denver over a dispute involving alleged violations of public consumption laws and the Colorado Clean Indoor Air Act during a service held this past 4/20 holiday.
With expectations to be in court Wednesday through Friday, the case was instead declared a mistrial, and will resume in July. "They were unable to a jury that could take an oath to not be biased," says Lee Molloy, co-founder of the International Church of Cannabis. "We had people admitting to being biased against cannabis, but more who just thought the entire case being brought against us was stupid, and they didn't think they could find us guilty even if they did prove their case."
Under the Colorado Clean Indoor Air Act, indoor smoking is disallowed on a public premise, no matter whether you're smoking cigarettes, cannabis, or any other herb. It's also unlawful to consume cannabis in public under local law, unless the establishment has a license to allow it. And according to Marley Bordovsky, director of the prosecution section of the Denver City Attorney's Office, "public" means allowing anyone to access or enter your property.
"Specifically in regard to the 4/20 event last year, people who weren't on the guest list were allowed in," she says. "Anyone could get in. I could have signed up on the internet and have gotten in, so they weren't being exclusive about who they would let in."
While the church didn't have a consumption area license, says Bordovsky, the penalties for both charges are merely fines of no more than a couple hundred dollars each. "We've had several conversations about settling this with a plea bargain, but they're not interested," she says.
Molloy says the church doesn't have a public consumption license expressly because it's a church: "We have a cannabis burning ritual and meditation as part of our service. I don't need a license to practice my religion."
He says the fines are about $200 for one charge, $100 for the other, and then the fee rises for every time the church is cited, up to $500 per occurrence per person. "This, for each person they charge, currently [including] all three of us [co-founders]. And there is nothing to stop the police [from] coming by and doing this every week until they bleed our bank accounts dry," he says. "Therefore, it is important to take a stand now. We are not attempting to make a statement; we just wish to be left alone to practice our religion in peace."
The debate isn't over whether cannabis consumption happened at the church, but whether the 4/20 event at the church can be considered open and public. It has to be both for the church to be found guilty, explains their attorney Warren Edson. "The Clean Indoor Air Act says people that have gatherings or businesses where there are four or more employees should not burn plant materials indoors," he says. "And volunteers do count as employees under the statutory definition."
Edson argues the event was neither public nor open. "It was invite-only; you had to request an invitation," he says. Moreover, there was only one part of the event that included cannabis consumption, and to gain access, you had to email the church with your name to receive an invitation, and then to gain entry to the service, you had to bring that invitation with proper ID to verify identity and age, he explains.
According to Edson, eleven detectives were part of the case, he adds, and all were undercover. Of the eleven, some of them got turned away, while others went through the invite process and were allowed in because they sent an email and got a confirmation. "One of the officers sent a fake email address, and then went back and complained that he followed procedure and hadn't been let in, which wasn't true because he used a fake email address, and then unfortunately he was let in," Edson says. "Security let another police officer in who didn't have an invite. I'm sure the city will be arguing the fact that two people got in — one by lying and the other by a security guard messing up." Whether that makes the event open and public is for the jury to eventually decide.
Regarding the deal that Bordovsky says the church didn't accept, Warren responded: "What she didn't tell you was that the public use charge is a public use crime, which allows the city to [take] the property [of the church]. If we plead to that charge that they offered, then they'll seize the church. My clients offered to plead guilty to the Clean Air Act charge, and they said no. She wants them to plead to an open use charge."
So far, a violation of the Colorado Indoor Clean Air Act has never gone to trial. "There's no jury instructions for the Colorado Clean Air Act, we had to make them up from scratch" says Edson. Generally, every other crime has a “go-to” model penal code.
At a hearing a few months ago, Edson filed a motion to use the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) as a defense. It was rejected on the grounds that the church wasn't receiving benefits from the federal government. "[Church administrators] weren't done filing nonprofit tax paperwork," says Edson. On the date of the offense, the paperwork hadn't yet been approved. "They would have been registered as a church, though now they are," he says.
As a cannabis church, Lee Molloy and his co-founders are still planning to hold a 4/20 service this year. "We are having church service as usual, as 4/20 falls on a Friday, which is our regular service day," Molloy says. "However, we have a couple of very special guests, but I cannot tell you who until we fully confirm and get stuff signed." It remains to be seen whether Denver police will drop by this year’s service.