Guardian's 'Church of Cannabis' puff piece makes reader jones for ... context and critique

I suppose I should thank The Guardian, one of Britain's more-upscale dailies, for giving me the opportunity to post an iconic moment from U.S. television history: A performance of Brewer & Shipley's 1970 ode to marijuana, "One Toke Over the Line" from "The Lawrence Welk Show."

Not even Pavarotti singing Meat Loaf's greatest hits could surpass it. Believe me.

The occasion for my diversion into the valley of camp music videos comes from a news story about one of Denver's newest congregations. Get ready for LOTS of puns and clever phrases, even if my longed-for staple, context, is sadly lacking.

Let's visit the scene of the journalistic "crime," entitled "Holy smoke! The church of cannabis" to separate, er, joint from marrow:

It started, naturally, with a group of friends smoking a joint. Steve Berke, a graduate of Yale University, was temporarily living in an old church in Denver, Colorado. His estate agent parents had bought the 113-year-old building with the plan to turn it into flats. He and Lee Molloy, as well as a few friends, had just moved from Miami to capitalise on Colorado’s lucrative marijuana market. But then, in the words of Lee: “We started having these stupid, fantastical conversations. What if we kept it as a church?” So Steve convinced his parents to give him the building and, nine months later, on 20 April 2016 – 4/20, as it’s known in the United States, the unofficial pothead’s holiday (because it’s 4.20pm somewhere, right?) – the International Church of Cannabis opened its doors with its own chapel, theology and video game arcade.
From the outside all appears normal: red-brick towers, blocky turrets, a classic city church in an otherwise leafy suburb of Denver. But there are giveaways. The three front doors and arched window facade have been spray-painted with silver galaxies and bright, happy-face planets. The work of legendary painter and graphic artist Kenny Scharf, who has exhibited in the Whitney and New York’s Museum of Modern Art, it looks more like the backdrop for an illegal 90s rave than your typical parish church. But it’s indicative of the coup that Elevation Ministries, the non-profit company that Steve and Lee co-founded to set up the Church of Cannabis, has managed to pull off.
“That mural would probably buy you next door’s house,” Lee says, letting me in. But they got it for the price of an air ticket for Scharf, a few days’ skiing and the loan of a jacket. People love fantastical ideas.

Let me start with my principal journalism gripe: While it's standard practice for journalists (and their publications) to write stories favorable about a given subject, perhaps a little more detachment is needed up top.

We're talking about marijuana here. Under the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, pot is a Schedule 1 drug, the government's most serious level of drug classification. While many states have lessened the criminal penalties for possession or use -- and, indeed, Colorado is among the states that have legalized pot for recreational purposes -- it's still serious stuff.

In fact, it's serious enough that the jolly folks at the Church of Cannabis and its parent, Elevation Ministries, have a stern warning for potential visitors, contained in their website's "Frequently Asked Questions" section:

Do You Allow Kids in the Church?
No, we do not allow anyone under 21 into the church when the sacrament is being burned.
There is significant scientific evidence to suggest that cannabis is not appropriate for the adolescent mind. And, the law says that 21 is the minimum age for the consumption of alcohol and cannabis, which we consider to be appropriate.

It's only seven paragraphs in before we get to any substantive criticism of the effort:

Dan Pabon, from the state’s House of Representatives, goes further: in a recent interview with the New York Times he said that the new church -- “offends both religious beliefs everywhere, as well as the voters’ intent on allowing legalisation of marijuana in Colorado”. He introduced an amendment that would ban pot use in churches, but to date it has failed to gather support. 

I don't know if it "offends ... religious beliefs everywhere," since, as the story notes, Jamaica's Rastafarian movement views cannabis use as sacramental. But I daresay it probably offends plenty of sensibilities in Denver and perhaps elsewhere.

From the church's FAQ, in answer to the question, "What is the meaning of life," we get this gem:

Life has no ultimate meaning that can be understood outside of our own terribly short time on this planet. We can only live the best that we can, enjoy the most, love the most, be the most -- because, when we die, we exist only in memory.

To call this outfit a church -- without seeking an opinion from any outside expert such as a religious studies professor somewhere, perhaps at the nearby University of Denver -- and to do so without the context its own statements about excluding children from services and its rather unusual existentialism is to do a disservice to readers.

This article is, I believe, screaming for context and critique. Not necessarily critique from the reporter -- who could have asked tough questions and reported the answers -- but certainly from other observers.

Instead, we're treated to yards of descriptions of high-intensity murals, the "after-party" table laden with munchies, and this soft kiss of a summation:

I sit back, head on the pew and let the psychedelic colours and smell of sensimilla smoke drift through my mind. This could be the start of something; it’s possible churches such as these will pop up all over the legalised States. But it may also just go up in smoke.

In short, where we could have had a serious discussion, readers are left with -- you guessed it -- a PUFF piece.

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