The City of Denver’s fight with the founders of the International Church of Cannabis continues to burn slowly, as a trial scheduled for today, September 11, over social cannabis consumption charges has been postponed until November.
This is the third time the trial has been pushed back, with its first attempt in February declared a mistrial due to a lack of jurors. The second try, set for July, was postponed because of a court scheduling matter with the City Attorney’s office. Now, the latest lurch in proceedings is coming from the defense after a new face has entered the picture.
Rob Corry began representing church co-founder Steve Berke at the beginning of September, according to defense attorney Warren Edson, and that means a lot of new homework. Edson had been Berke’s legal counsel since February and continues to represent the other two co-founders of the church, Lee Molloy and Briley Hale.
“There is a ton of discovery and other things you’d need to catch up on after entering these cases,” Edson explains. “I just dusted mine off from February. This allegedly happened over a year ago, in April. Clearly the city has a lot of time and money on their hands to pursue this.”
Since opening in 2017, the church has allowed occasional cannabis consumption inside during private, members-only celebrations of the church’s practicing faith, Elevationism, according to its founders. During the church’s inaugural 4/20 observation, several undercover officers with the Denver Police Department entered the indoor congregation area and observed attendees consuming cannabis during what Berke describes as a members-only gathering. Berke claims the undercover officers entered under false pretenses and pretended to be members, but city attorneys and the DPD say officers were allowed to enter freely.
Days later, Berke, Hale and Molloy were issued citations for public cannabis consumption and violations of the Colorado Clean Indoor Air Act, misdemeanors that carry $100 and $200 fines, respectively. Those consumption charges have since been updated to complicity of public pot use after the founders continued to say they were never smoking cannabis at the event that day.
But why are the church’s founders and the city so intent on dragging out an argument over a couple hundred dollars? According to Edson, admitting guilt or being convicted of those misdemeanors could open up the church, at 400 South Logan Street, to public forfeiture because both violations are considered public nuisance crimes.
In August, Westword‘s Ana Campbell described a Washington Park couple’s legal woes with the same nuisance abatement ordinance. The couple, who thought they were growing four cannabis plants legally in their backyard, ended up with a lien against their home from the city and the threat of random police searches over the next two and a half years or so.
Edson and Berke are worried the church would find itself in a similar situation if its founders plead guilty, with Berke even claiming religious persecution after the mistrial in February. The City Attorney’s office has declined to comment on the case.
If and when the trial happens (set for November 6, 7 and 8), Edson feels confident they will win. The initial mistrial in February happened after multiple jurors were excused when they objected to the city attorney’s explanation of complicity theory (breaking the law by allowing people to publicly consume cannabis on your property) as well as the city’s use of resources on the case. One juror vocally struggled with the idea of charging the church with social consumption while “hundreds of people do it” during concerts at Red Rocks Amphitheatre.
“It’s all crap,” Edson says of the prosecution’s case. “I’ve never seen that large number of jurors unravel on a prosecutor like that. Usually theres a couple libertarians in the pool who don’t like the law, or something like that, but that was something else.”