The Marijuana Nuns of Merced, California

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

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.

 

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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.”

 

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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.

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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