Apr 3, 2016

Cannabis-growing 'nuns' grapple with California law: 'We are illegal'

The Sisters of the Valley, who say they do not follow any traditional religion, hope they can make marijuana ‘a healing industry instead of a stoner industry’
Julia Carrie Wong
The Guardian
January 26, 2016

 ‘If pizza was a vegetable, I was a nun.’
The Sisters of the Valley’s “abbey” is a modest three-bedroom house on the outskirts of Merced, in a cul-de-sac next to the railroad tracks. (Sister Kate calls the frequent noise from passing trains “part of our penance”.) When visitors come to the door, Sister Kate asks them to wait outside until she can “sage” them with the smoke from a piece of wood from a Russian tree given to her by a shaman.

Sister Kate lives here with her “second sister”, Sister Darcy, and her youngest son.

But these aren’t your average nuns. The women grow marijuana in the garage, produce cannabidiol tinctures and salves in crockpots in the kitchen, and sell the merchandise through an Etsy store. (Cannabidiol, or CBD, is one of the active ingredients in marijuana that is prized for medicinal qualities and is not psychoactive.) The women perform their tasks wearing long denim skirts, white collared shirts and nun’s habits. And while their “order” is small – last week they ordained their third member, a marijuana grower in Mendocino County known as Sister Rose – they share the same dream as many California startup founders: scaling.

The sisters say they are in touch with women in New Jersey and Washington state who may be interested in joining up. “They’re out buying jean skirts and white blouses,” said Sister Kate. “We want there to be women in every city selling medicine.”

But their ambitions have been thwarted by legislation that was passed last year – 19 years after medical marijuana was first legalized in the state – to regulate the billion-dollar industry through the Medical Marijuana Safety and Regulation Act. An error in the final text of the law has resulted in scores of cities across the state passing local bans on the cultivation, distribution, and sale of the drug, including Merced, a small city in California’s Central Valley where the Sisters live.

The legislation accidentally established a 1 March 2016 deadline for cities to impose their own bans or regulations on medical marijuana or be subject to state rules, a deadline that assembly member Jim Wood, who authored that section of the bill, said was included by complete accident.

Wood has drafted fix-it legislation, which he’s optimistic will pass in the legislature by the end of next week and be signed by the governor immediately after. But next week is too late for the Sisters of the Valley.

“If it was a typo, that’s great. If it wasn’t, who knows,” said John M Bramble, the city manager of Merced, the morning after Merced’s city council passed its medical marijuana ban. Either way, “it’s too late,” he said. “We’re banning it for now because if we don’t, we’ll have no local control.”

That leaves the Sisters of the Valley in a precarious position. “We are completely illegal, banned through commerce and banned through growing,” said Sister Kate. “They made criminals out of us overnight.”

Despite Sister Kate’s Catholic upbringing, the Sisters “are not affiliated with any traditional earthly religion”. The order’s principles are a potent blend of new age spirituality (they time their harvests and medicine making to the cycles of the moon, and pray while they cook to “infuse healing and intent to our medicine”), environmentalism (“We think the plant is divine the way Mother Earth gave it to us”), progressive politics (asked whether she’s offended if someone drops her title and calls her “Kate”, Sister Kate responds: “It’s offensive that no banksters went to jail”), feminism (“Women can change this industry and make it a healing industry instead of a stoner industry”), and savvy business practices.

The pair starts every day with several hours of “Bible time”, their term for attending to all the correspondence that comes their way via email, Etsy, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram. The recent media attention they’ve received has resulted in a surge of orders and messaging that left Sister Darcy three or four days behind on her email in late December. “That’s a cardinal sin in our world,” Sister Kate joked.

It would be easy to dismiss the Sisters’ religious trappings as a marketing gimmick, and they certainly have not been shy when it comes to the press (according to Sister Kate, there are two film production companies interested in their story, but she only wants to participate if there’s a way the project can help Bernie Sanders win the presidential election). But the women seem sincere in their belief in the healing properties of CBD and their desire to help the ailing.

Meeusen, who is 55, got into the marijuana industry after a bad divorce. After 10 years living in Amsterdam and working as a financial consultant, she returned to the US with three kids and little money in 2008, just as the financial crisis was kicking off. Her brother persuaded her to move to the Central Valley with him and start a medical marijuana business. After using marijuana to help her nephew recover from a heroin addiction, Meeusen was a believer. The family started a successful enough medical marijuana business to survive, and Sister Kate settled into the Merced activist community.

Meeusen began dressing like a nun in November 2011, during the height of the Occupy movement. Outraged with news reports that the US Congress had decided to classify pizza as a vegetable, she decided, “If pizza was a vegetable, I was a nun. So I put on a nun outfit and started going out to protests, and the movement dubbed me Sister Occupy.”

Sister Kate says that she never wanted to fool people into thinking she was a “real” nun, but she enjoyed the way that her habit changed how people interacted with her, seeking her out and telling her their troubles. When she had a falling out with her brother – she says she caught him selling their product on the black market, and he kicked her out of their home, leaving her semi-homeless for four months – she came up with the idea of a sisterhood of therapy plants.

Sister Kate was looking for a “second sister” when a mutual friend arranged a phone call with Darcy Johnson. After just a thirty minute conversation, the 24-year-old from Washington state was ready to move to Merced and join the order. Sister Darcy had spent time in New Zealand working on an organic farm, and now, back in the States, was looking for a better way of life.

“This is my better,” Sister Darcy said.

The day after Merced’s ban on medical marijuana was passed, the sisters were preparing for battle. Sister Kate is planning to start a call-in campaigns across the Central Valley, urging growers and customers to flood city council members with phone calls every Friday until they come up with reasonable regulations.

Whatever happens, though, the Sisters of the Valley are answering to a higher authority. “We’re not accepting their ban,” said Sister Kate. “It’s against the will of the people, and that makes it unnatural and immoral.”


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