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Five years ago, Christine Meeusen decided to wear a nun costume to an Occupy Wall Street protest in central California. The Milwaukee native had been living in Amsterdam for eight years while working as a business consultant, and upon returning to the US with her three kids after a bitter divorce in 2008, found herself horrified by what she came back to: an increasing wealth gap, dismal unemployment rates, and a general disregard for the environment.
Meeusen, now 56, didn't know how people would react to her outfit — a remnant from Halloween — and was pleased with the overwhelmingly positive response she received from her fellow protesters.
"I think people were surprised because they weren't used to seeing robed clergy in this country who actually gave a shit," she says. "People didn't care that I was a fake nun. They would just come to me with their problems and ask me to light a candle, say a prayer, or connect them to help."
As she became more involved in the Occupy movement, Meeusen decided to stick with her nun persona. She picked up the nickname "Sister Occupy" and began to own up to the moniker, justifying it like this: "If Congress can call pizza a vegetable, than why can't I be a nun?"
These days, Meeusen goes by Sister Kate. She's still a self-appointed, non-denominational nun with an activist bent, but she's moved on from protesting income inequality, having found a literally higher purpose.
For the past nine months, Sister Kate has been making cannabis lotions and oils with her apprentice Darcy Johnson, a 24-year-old amateur farmer from Portland. They call their venture Sisters of the Valley and sell their concoctions online. The products are made with marijuana strains like Harlequin that offer a high concentration of CBD, one of the primary cannabinoids found in marijuana; CBD has little to no psychoactive effects and, according to ongoing research, has a number of potential medicinal benefits.
Sister Kate and Johnson, who goes by Sister Darcy, see themselves as spiritual figures who can heal all sorts of physical ailments with their products, which they refer to as "medicine." They look to many religions, from Judaism to paganism, for rituals, and make their products according to the moon cycle, beginning each two-week production run with the new moon and completing it when the full moon appears. (If they are low on supply during the remaining two weeks of the month, they will produce off the moon cycle, but will label the goods accordingly and significantly mark down the prices.)
"The reason we moved to Merced County is because the soil is rich and the people are poor. It's a great place to grow cannabis and the people need these jobs."
Today Sister Kate is sitting inside her office — a space that's filled with an eclectic mix of Dutch books, nun-related tchotchkes, and Bernie Sanders leaflets — in Merced County. She's working on filing taxes for the company while Sister Darcy is in an office next door, managing the Sisters of the Valley inbox. Like every other day, the sisters are decked out in habits. They've tweaked the traditional nun garb to fit their own branding, though. Since they're "essentially farmers," Sister Kate explains, they choose to wear an everyday habit of white shirts and jean skirts they source from local thrift shops, as well as white veils they buy from Muslim clothing site East Essence. For special occasions, Sister Kate, who is a master seamstress, made them white robes with purple bibs — purple because "it is the color of suffering, the color of Occupy, and the color of the red/blue blended bipolar political system."
A few months ago, the sisters purchased one acre of land and moved their operation from the city of Merced to the county's remote valley. There are three structures situated on the property: "The Abbey," a tiny, three-bedroom house where the medicine is made; another house with office space that also has a communal kitchen; and a garage that is home to a small crop of at least a dozen cannabis plants the sisters can grow legally with their medical marijuana cards. There is also a beautiful, sprawling backyard with blooming fruit trees, a gazebo, a fire pit, and a fenced-off garden.
While Merced is picturesque, with its quiet, dusty roads cutting through nothing but almond groves for miles and miles, looks can be deceiving. As of 2014, more than 35 percent of Merced's population lived below the poverty line, and the area has deep ties to Mexico's Sinaloa drug cartel; it is ranked one of the most dangerous cities in the country. Merced is also embroiled in an ongoing battle over what constitutes legal cannabis use. The sale and cultivation of medical marijuana was officially banned in January, but the city council is currently drafting a new official policy, one that may or may not come down hard on cannabis businesses.
None of this deters the sisters. "Everyone likes to say that we got in trouble with the California law and were chased out here into the wilderness, but the reason we moved to Merced County is because the soil is rich and the people are poor," says Sister Kate. "It's a great place to grow cannabis and the people need these jobs. While our mission is to heal and work with patients, we also want to grow honorable jobs because never in history have I seen such an abusive job environment as America has right now."
They want to change Merced, and possibly the world, all in the name of cannabis.
Sisters of the Valley is but one small player in America's burgeoning cannabis industry, which has grown exponentially since Colorado and Washington legalized the drug for recreational use in 2012. Legalization has helped chip away at negative associations surrounding marijuana and stoner culture, and according to a recent report by ArcView Market Research, 2016 could see as much as $6.7 billion worth of cannabis-related sales in the US. Many new cannabis products, like those the sisters sell, are aimed at pain relief and health, as the rise of marijuana has dovetailed with the proliferation of wellness culture.
Sister Kate wasn't always interested in cannabis. As a teenager, she was told "the devil's weed would lead her to cocaine or heroin." But things were different in Amsterdam, where marijuana is decriminalized. When she started to experience symptoms of menopause while living there, a Dutch doctor asked her, "Well, don't you smoke weed?" He suggested she give up caffeine and alcohol and smoke pot every night. So she did, finding success in the drug's treatment of her insomnia and night sweats.
When she came back to America, she began to advocate for legalization stateside, and in 2011 started a cannabis grow operation with her brother, eventually experimenting with CBD recipes she found on YouTube in early 2015. She began selling her Sisters of the Valley products online in July and was soon introduced to Sister Darcy.
"Sister Darcy was sent to me by a mutual friend in Washington whose son she was friends with. He sort of handpicked her for me," says Sister Kate. "She showed up and she had nothing! I said, ‘Didn't you bring clothes?' and she said, ‘Well, don't you have a habit?' and I said, ‘I love you!'"
Sister Darcy is soft-spoken and holds herself with the pleasantly relaxed composure often attributed to stoners. Her farming knowledge has made her a real asset to the business. After getting fired from a waitressing job back in Portland for testing positive for THC during a random drug test, she dipped into her savings account and spent nine months in New Zealand working for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, where volunteers trade farm labor in exchange for room and board.
"It was a hit or miss in terms of hosts teaching you how to farm, but I had some amazing experiences and really got to know the ins and outs of agriculture," says Sister Darcy. After completing her time with WWOOF, she moved to Washington and flipped burgers while attending Clark Community College and growing cannabis in her backyard. She now manages the farm's small crop.
Together, Sister Darcy and Sister Kate have become cannabis experts, gaining them respect from novices and professionals alike.
"The sisters' underlying understanding of what the plant actually does for people is what got me," says Nicole Kennebeck, the director of retail operations for Ajoya, a dispensary in Louisville, Colorado. "I see a lot of big companies create chains of flashy dispensaries with big grow facilities that just pump their plants with liquid salts and nutrients, so to see people talking about the plant as holistic medicine and actually caring about how it contributes to real people is really awesome."
Late in the afternoon on the farm, the sisters begin to brew a fresh batch of salve. They put on gloves and begin to prep. They light candles, burn sage, and play soft music; one song with women chanting, "The earth is our mother, we must take care of her" over and over is a favorite. The kitchen inside The Abbey is currently being renovated by carpenters and painters who shuffle in and out all day. The living room is decorated with paintings of 18th century European women and Barbie dolls dressed as nuns. A sketch of an aristocratic lady sitting near a marijuana plant and smoking a joint hangs proudly on a wall facing the kitchen.
"My friends didn't believe me when I said I was spending my college break making weed products with nuns."
Eight slow cookers are on the counter, ready to be filled with pot leaves, coconut oil, calendula oil, vitamin E, beeswax, and lavender essential oil. Sister Darcy begins to set out giant gallons of coconut oil while Sholani and Stephana, two college students from the Bay Area, weigh out 10-ounce portions of cannabis from giant plastic bags. The girls met the sisters at HempCon, a national cannabis convention, a few months ago and are spending their spring break on the farm learning the sisters' craft. While other workplaces might call them "interns," here they are called "seasonal sisters," and they too are dressed in habits, ones they borrowed from the Sisters of the Valley stash.
"I might buy myself my own nun outfit after this," says Stephana, a sophomore at Las Positas College who says she is "Hindu with pagan interests" and wears a necklace with charms that include a Koran locket and a Jewish Star of David. "I can't explain it, but it feels really amazing to be a part of something like this and to do something that is bigger than me."
"My friends didn't believe me when I said I was spending my college break making weed products with nuns," adds Sholani, grinning.
Before the ingredients are distributed into the pots, there is a prayer huddle. Sister Kate takes the hands of the seasonal sisters and they all close their eyes. "Thank you for calling us to do this divine work," she says, softly and slowly, with conviction. "Let our medicine travel safely and do the work it needs to, and then let the people using our medicine do the work they need to do. Keep our hearts pure and their hearts pure. Keep our minds pure and our hands steady."
While the cannabis Sister Darcy is tending to in the garage grows, the sisters are outsourcing much of their pot production to an organic grower in Mendocino County, from a friend who goes by Sister Rose. Their costs might come down once they use their own crop, but for now, the products are pricey: large containers of CBD salve, oil, and tincture cost as much as $95 each, though a small tin of salve sells for $9.99. They call the products "multi-purpose" and suggest the formulas be used for muscle and joint pain relief.
"I wholeheartedly recommend this Cannabis Salve for chronic back pain. It gives me rapid relief after many years of suffering," writes one customer, Doreen Dupont, on their site. "I'm legally blind, disabled from a botched brain surgery, and I get debilitating grand mal seizures and late-stage endometriosis," writes another customer, Shanie Cognevich from Louisiana, on the sisters' Facebook page. "My pain has gotten so bad I've passed out. The oils and salve from Sister Kate worked miracles. I'm sleeping all night without pain." Other customers providing feedback say they use the products for all sorts of other ailments: insomnia, diaper rash, migraines, acne.
Sister Darcy answers hundreds of emails a day — many of them friendly notes, others inquiries about where to score some bud. The women also attract their fair share of trolls and creeps. One man from New York emailed the sisters asking for their dirty panties; Sister Kate posted the phone number he provided on their Facebook page. He hasn't gotten in touch since. But more often, Sister Darcy says, their inbox is filled with curious questions from potential customers, a lot of them older.
"I just got an email from a 60-year-old man who wants to know ‘what a CBD is' and how he can get his hands on ‘a CBD!'" Sister Darcy laughs. "It's just sad because how many senior citizens are out there that can benefit from CBD products, but can't talk to their doctors about this? And there really isn't enough education about it. So I answer all of them, and I'm not a doctor, so I'll just send them articles about research I've read. I think people should just be allowed to have the facts themselves, like understand the effects of aspirin versus cannabis and make the decision on their own."
"I think people should just be allowed to have the facts themselves, like understand the effects of aspirin versus cannabis and make the decision on their own."
The sisters are allowed to sell their products anywhere in the US thanks to a 2004 case the Hemp Industry Association won against the DEA, which allowed formulas with very small traces of tetrahydrocannabinol (also known as THC, the chief psychoactive cannabinoid) to be sold and classified as hemp products. According to federal law, these products can be shipped anywhere in the US so long as they contain no more than a 0.3 percent concentration of THC.
Up until recently, the sisters were selling their products on Etsy. The site abruptly shut down the Sisters of the Valley store on March 24th, and so their business is now conducted exclusively on their own website. (Etsy would not provide comment for this story, but when asked why the company shut down the shop, a spokesperson pointed Racked in the direction of Etsy's Prohibited Items Policy, which forbids "alcohol, drugs," and "other substances that have or claim to have an intoxicating or healing effect.")
When Sister Kate first started her venture in July, business was slow but steady. Thanks to some recent media attention, orders have been streaming in and they say they're selling as much as $40,000 worth of products each month. If this keeps up, the sisters could be looking at a business that brings in almost half a million dollars annually.
Taking the veil might have started out as a clever scheme for Sister Kate, but the conceit wasn't all that foreign to her. She was raised in the faith, though she calls herself "more of a reformed Catholic" these days. She says she really took to the nuns she knew growing up: "There's a lot I loved about my Catholic upbringing and much about the sisters that I adored. I didn't have mean nuns; I had kind nuns. They did their jobs and they did them well, and I have countless women on the streets who tell me, ‘I've always wanted to be a sister, but I couldn't take the dogma.'"
Sister Kate is not entirely comfortable with the politics of the Church (nor those of Pope Francis, who holds groundbreaking liberal views regarding homosexuality, immigration, and religious tolerance, though opposes the legalization of marijuana), but she sent her children to Catholic schools in Amsterdam and was impressed with the education they received.
The Sisters of the Valley are not ordained as Catholic nuns, nor do they have any intention of officially partnering with the Catholic Church. They do, however, believe America's Catholic nuns are in crisis. They're not wrong.
According to data from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, there are less than 50,000 active nuns in America today. This is in contrast to the record-high 181,000 nuns that served in the United States in the mid-1960s, illustrating a 72 percent drop in half a century. Today, according to the center, there are more Catholic nuns in the US over the age of 90 than under the age of 60. The New York Times has called nuns a "dying breed" and Sister Kate notes that "the Catholic nun is going extinct at a time when more than ever do people need the presence of robed clergy."
"We're occupying an unoccupied habit," she explains.
Like their Catholic antecedents, Sister Kate and Sister Darcy felt it was important to take vows, and so they took those of servitude, activism, obedience, ecology, poverty, and during the two weeks from new moon until full moon, veganism and celibacy.
"No one from the Catholic clergy has told me to stop. After a few minutes of conversing, they all throw their arms around me."
"We're celibate during our medicine-making moon cycles because we believe America is not ready for non-celibate nuns, and because it will help with our focus," says Sister Kate. "And we're vegan during moon cycles because that helps Mother Earth."
From the get-go, Sister Kate admits they've had to "take a lot of shit from some people for hijacking the habit." Her own family thinks what she's doing is disrespectful to the Catholic Church. Interestingly though, she says, Catholic clergy actually endorse the venture — just not publicly.
"I've had a priest show up to my door, and I thought he was coming to yell at me, but he said, ‘I want to tell you to keep going, Sister, I'm loving this,'" Sister Kate chuckles. "No one from the Catholic clergy has told me to stop. After a few minutes of conversing, they all throw their arms around me." Several members of the Catholic clergy, as well as various Catholic organizations, were contacted for this story; all declined to share their opinions about Sisters of the Valley, some explicitly for fear of being ostracized by the Church.
Drugs and religion are not mutually exclusive. From Peruvian shamans brewing ayahuasca for soul-searching journeys to Hasidic masters allegedly using psychedelic herbs for divine enlightenment, there is a longstanding tradition of drug use in spiritual practice. Some researchers even believe the oil Jesus used for anointing was, in fact, made from cannabis.
It's no surprise then, especially given the recent move towards legalization, that cannabis has become a recent topic of conversation in many religious communities. Last year, a rabbi from the Orthodox Union, the largest and most powerful kosher certification company in the country, told the New York Post the group would start working with edible companies out in Colorado soon — an unprecedented move in Orthodox Judaism.
Medical marijuana is also catching on in Salt Lake City's Mormon community, ever since Utah passed a law in 2014 that allows residents to buy select cannabis products from other states. Earlier this year, leadership from the Church of Latter-day Saints said it would potentially support a bill that would allow CBD-based products to be legally sold in Utah. Sister Darcy says many loyal Sisters of the Valley customers live in Salt Lake City.
"I love that the sisters are taking a spiritual approach to the plant," says Heather Manus, a nurse on the board of directors for the American Cannabis Nurses Association and a member of the LDS church. "I've heard people say that they are taking on this persona as a media ploy, but in no way do I think that's their intention. They are coming from a place of understanding this plant, and they are healers. In our scripture, it states that all herbs were put on this earth for our use, and Genesis 1:29 speaks to that as well, so I think it's fantastic that the sisters are teaching people that this is God's medicine."
The sisters have a dog named Benjy, though "have" is maybe not the right word. He doesn't really belong to them. A scrappy, mid-sized blonde mutt, Benjy showed up on the farm one day and made himself at home. The sisters can't stand him and you can't quite blame them — he's kind of a mess. Regardless of how often he's bathed, he just ends up filthy after exploring the farm. And yet the sisters continue to feed him daily, so he's always around. At a bonfire after dinner one night, Benjy sits in the circle with the sisters. He's part of this unconventional family.
Sister Kate and Sister Darcy are caretakers, nurturers. They take people, dogs, everyone in. When a Merced resident named Laurie called and asked for a job after seeing the sisters on local television, they added her to the payroll and she and her two daughters now do administrative work in the office, helping out with billing, packaging, and shipping. After Sister Kate met a truck driver named Zane at an Occupy protest a few years back, she stayed in touch and offered him a job on the farm as well; "Brother Zane," as they affectionately call him, makes all the videos for the Sisters of the Valley products, and is also the farm's manager. The sisters have even employed a local electrician who had been unable to find work.
"He's great, except he can't seem to finish the job, and he disappears for days at a time," Sister Kate whispers at the bonfire.
The lighting and watering system that's nursing the cannabis crop in the sisters' garage was built by two University of California, Merced students, Kevin Bauer and Emory Silberman, whose new lighting business Sister Kate recently invested in. Last month, after Etsy shut down the Sisters of the Valley shop, Bauer and Silberman worked around the clock to help with the sisters' e-commerce site so they wouldn't lose customers. The "kids," as Sister Kate calls Bauer and Silberman, live nearby and are very much part of the farm family too.
Bauer stops by to check the pH levels of the water being soaked up by the baby cannabis plants. He then stays for dinner and the nightly bonfire, where the whole group chats about life, religion, and cannabis politics, and roasts marshmallows while listening to the sounds of croaking frogs and chirping crickets. It almost feels like summer camp.
"I like the idea of farms, of creating something sustainable that a team can live off of," Sister Kate says as she passes a joint. "We need some individual freedom, and that's what I'm trying to create here. A new kind of sisterhood, but one that is actually communal."
Late at night, the sisters finally retire to bed, but not before teaching Sholani and Stephana the ritual dance they do every full moon. The next morning they are up early, back to checking emails and filling orders before they bottle the CBD potions that have been simmering in the slow cookers overnight.
The sisters have earned quite the reputation around town, garnering them both admirers and enemies. While they were getting lunch at a local food cart in town one time, a car full of men pulled up and shouted, "Hey, are you guys the weed nuns? Great job, ladies!" before abruptly driving away. Back when she was still running Care Growers, Sister Kate says her house was robbed, prompting a doctor linked with the cartel to call her and organize a meeting with a local member of the group. She says he apologized to her for the "unauthorized hit" and assured her the perpetrators were being punished.
"We are definitely going to have to get better security here once the plants grow," Bauer explains from inside the farm's garage. "The Central Valley is a grow capital, so people will spend six months growing cannabis plants only to have someone come into their yards in the middle of the night and steal the trees because they are worth thousands."
Sister Kate agrees she's going to have to beef up security. A sophisticated alarm system is one of the many items she has on her wishlist and something the farm will get once they begin to see profit. The sisters have already been approached by investors — "men on white horses," as Sister Kate calls them, "who promise they can turn my $50,000 into $500,000. I've already said, ‘No thanks, but please have your wives call me if they are interested in working with us!'"
In terms of what an expansion of the sisterhood could look like, Sister Kate says she envisions franchise operations around the world. Sister companies. She's in touch with a group of women in Ireland about a potential partnership over there, and Sister Darcy has recruited at least one friend from her adventure with WWOOF in New Zealand to take the veil and move to their farm this summer. The pair is also talking with three former Catholic nuns about potential positions for them at Sisters of the Valley. They think having real nuns would help legitimize the operation. They also want these women to help teach and incorporate more religious rituals.
One day, Sister Kate says, she wants her business to be big enough that it can employ recovering vets "who could have a respectable job and access to real medicine." But for now, Sisters of the Valley remains the small, homegrown operation it is. At the end of the day, the sisters just want to heal those in pain.
"Our activism might piss off some people," she says. "But we've got spirituality and we've got cannabis, and we know that there is enough here to resonate with women everywhere."
Chavie Lieber is a senior reporter at Racked.