Darcy Johnson, 24, slices open a bag of ground cannabis so big that she needs two hands to lift it. She hoists it over a scale, and fluffy, green particles fall in clumps like snow. The scent of candles and burning sage hangs in the air as she prepares the tincture.
This is not the life Johnson, who goes by the name Sister Darcy, ever imagined for herself.
She and her business partner Christine Meeusen, or Sister Kate, are two self-proclaimed nuns who make and sell medicinal cannabis products out of their home in California’s rural Central Valley. Their mission is to erase the negative stigma surrounding the plant, provide medicine, and unite women who believe in its healing powers. It’s been an uphill battle.
“This is the Wild West,” Sister Darcy says from behind her laptop. “We’re not growing dandelions.”
Until recently, the Sisters of the Valley ran a wildly successful Etsy shop selling pot products, including oils and salves, claiming to have netted sales as high as $40,000 a month. But on March 24, the day we published a photo essay on the women, the e-commerce site shuttered their store without notice. The setback comes just months after new legislation rendered their operation illegal in their original location in Merced County, forcing the sisters to pack up and move.
“Anyone who lists an item for sale on Etsy agrees to follow all applicable laws and follow our policies. Our policies do not allow drugs, drug paraphernalia, or listings that contain medical drug claims, to be sold on Etsy,” a spokeswoman for Etsy told Tech Insider in an email.
Now the sisters are raising $10,000 through crowdfunding website GoFundMe to cover the cost of operations. They recently launched an e-commerce shop on their website, which flooded the page with traffic and caused it to crash almost immediately.
In spite of the issues, the two women — recognizable at every Bay Area cannabis industry event in their white blouses, long denim skirts, and habits — refuse to change their ways.
“No matter what we read about cannabis in the last 20 years, we didn’t listen to it,” Sister Kate says, sitting in her office chair. “Because we knew we were dealing with a healing plant. We knew, intuitively, without having the science [to back us], that it was being demonized.”
Less than a year ago, Sister Darcy was flipping burgers at a Jack In The Box. She attended a community college near her home in Washington state when she could afford it, and grew marijuana plants in the backyard.
Then a mutual friend introduced her to Sister Kate, a spirited older woman who, at the height of the Occupy Wall Street Movement, began dressing like a nun in protest of US Congress declaring pizza a vegetable. The media dubbed her Sister Occupy for her methods of bringing attention to political issues.
Sister Kate wanted to start a medicinal cannabis company. After a 30-minute call, Johnson was sold. She traded her jeans and flannel for a habit and migrated south to California.
“When people say, ‘Well, they’re not real nuns,’ my answer is there are no nuns. They’re going extinct in this country,” Sister Kate says. “If you look up what makes up a sister, there are five elements. … We live together, we wear the same clothes, we take a vow of obedience to the moon cycles, we take a vow of chastity (which we don’t think requires celibacy), and a vow of ecology, which is a vow to do no harm while you’re making your medicine.”
Today, the sisters make a line of topical salves, tinctures, and oils made from hemp, a type of cannabis plant that contains only trace amounts of the psychoactive ingredient tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), which gets users high. Hemp products with less than 0.3% THC in dry weight do not constitute marijuana, according to federal law.
The sisters claim their products are legal to ship across state lines under a 2004 court ruling that liberated hemp from the DEA’s regulation. Some experts call it a legal gray area, because the ruling never explicitly legalized cannabidiol (CBD), another chemical compound found in cannabis that remains a Schedule 1 drug.
A healing plant
The legal cannabis industry is one of the fastest growing in the world. In 2015, sales increased 15% to $5.4 billion, toppling those of the e-cigarette business and the Girl Scouts combined. Still, the Sisters of the Valley insist they’re not in the weed business for the money or fame. They believe wholeheartedly that cannabis is medicine.
“The first question we ask someone who is interested in joining the order is, ‘Have you ever shamed anyone for using cannabis?'” Sister Kate says. “And so far, five of six [women] I’ve spoken to since the first of the year were horrified by the question. ‘Why would I do that?’ That’s the kind of response we’re looking for.”
Sitting in one of the home offices, a white-walled room that looks out into the backyard, Sister Kate rattles off the therapeutic effects of cannabis. Marijuana treats chronic pain, anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and debilitating diseases such as Alzheimer’s, she says.
“I feel like everyone who died in the last 75 years of cancer should have a class action suit against every level of government,” she says.
Sister Kate first smoked a joint at the age of 17, sitting in a car across from the high school on a freezing night in Wisconsin, but it failed to get her high. Years later, when she was living in Amsterdam and suffering through menopause, a physician recommended she light up. Bud before bed ailed her.
When a nephew later became addicted to cocaine, she encouraged her brother, “Make a stoner out of him and he will live.” He did.
Oils that are marketed as legal to ship across state lines are extracted from the hemp plant, not the marijuana plant. Both belong to the cannabis family, but marijuana contains CBD — a chemical compound that has been shown to have health benefits in some clinical studies — in much higher concentrations. Advocacy groups including the Drug Policy Alliance and Project CBD say the word “hemp” should raise a red flag for consumers.
Martin Lee, director of Project CBD, tells Tech Insider on the phone that huge amounts of harshly-processed hemp foliage are required to draw out just a small amount of CBD. Hemp is also a bio-accumulator, which means it gathers nutrients and minerals from the ground and stores them in its leaves. It may also suck up toxins, which, as Lee explains in a blog post, is “not ideal for making ingestible medicinal oil concentrates.”
In an email, Sister Kate distanced herself from what she called “snake oil salesmen,” adding that the Sisters’ website is transparent about potency. The oil and tincture both contain 500 milligrams of CBD, which is about the equivalent of one pre-rolled joint. At $95 a pop, that might not get a patient very far. The Mayo Clinic, for example, suggests 200 to 300 milligrams of CBD daily to treat epilepsy in adults, though further testing is required.
Still, customer reviews on the Sisters of the Valley’s Facebook page are generally positive.
“I got some of the salve today and am amazed how quickly it started to relieve the pain in my knees which have severe arthritis,” one person wrote.
“The difference it has made for me in my battles with cancer and lupus is incredible,” another person says, noting the products have eased her pain, nausea, and side effects from other medicines. “You make it possible for people like me to continue our battle.”
While the products’ medicinal value is unclear, the sisters do have a “secret sauce” that goes into every batch. Prayer.
A dash of Catholicism and a pinch of mysticism
Before the medicine-making begins, Sister Kate lights a bundle of sage and sweeps it over the workbench in their office. She mutters some incantations under her breath. Then, the sisters take turns waving the sage over each other’s outstretched arms. “We’re mostly borrowing from the Natives,” she later tells me.
Production takes place two weeks out of the month, between the new moon and the full moon. The sisters abstain from eating any animal products during this time, except for coffee creamer, which Sister Kate can’t resist. (“I have to do my penance at the end of every moon cycle,” she says.)
On the first day of the cycle, they hold a ceremony under the stars to bless their work table. They give thanks to Creator God and Mother Goddess for calling them to this profession.
Neither sister subscribes to the Christian faith as we know it. Sister Darcy did a youth group stint in high school, but stopped attending church a year after she started. Sister Kate grew up going to a private Catholic school and was taught by nuns. It wasn’t until she moved to California and heard people joking about nuns that she learned it was possible to dislike one.
“I could tell from a young age that I liked what they represented. They didn’t preach, they didn’t evangelize,” Sister Kate says. “They did their work. They did it honorably. All of those things are what we want to emulate.”
Still, watching Sister Darcy rake her fingers through a container of ground marijuana as she feels for stems, it’s hard to imagine her in a traditional abbey. “I think most of [the habits] are pillowcases,” she says, touching the frayed edges of her hat.
The nun shtick has earned the sisters some amusing press. In late March, a photograph of them in their grow room made it to Reddit’s Photoshop Battles, where users transformed them into pugs and puffs of smoke.
“We don’t get offended by it,” Sister Kate says, “because we expected to be challenged in this whole thing.”
The abbey expands
Only women can join the order of the Sisters of the Valley, but the abbey is a revolving door of male business associates, construction workers, and student volunteers from the nearby University of California at Merced. During Sister Darcy’s “Bible Time,” the first two to four hours of the day when she responds to customers’ questions over email and Facebook, no fewer then five men interrupt her.
“We make all the decisions. We have all the authority,” Sister Kate says over the noise of two college-aged kids banging pots and pans in the kitchen. “All of the men support that concept.”
From the day she founded the company in 2015, Sister Kate insisted women serve at the helm. The medicinal marijuana industry is in turmoil, she believes, because it caters to the demands of the recreational crowd. Sister Kate believes women will bridge the gap between the “stoner-culture myths” and the reality of the medicine.
“[Women] are born with a natural gift for healing. It’s something we carry with us somewhere tucked right near the vagina,” she says. “That is innate. It’s empowered. It’s a wisdom we know.”
The Sisters of the Valley hope to grow the business by opening more abbeys across the US and abroad over the next decade. A pair of women — one older and one younger, like them — would make the medicine on-site at each location, and US military veterans would oversee 10-acre cannabis farms from coast to coast, supplying bud for the company’s products. So far, two former (real) nuns have expressed interest in opening a chapter.
For now, business is up and running on the sisters’ website. They continue to reach out to Etsy in an effort to restore the shop.
Should the e-commerce site match sales they reportedly got from Etsy, the sisters are on pace to earn between $400,000 and $500,000 this year. They’re also preparing to launch a wholesale pilot program with 25 retail stores. Sister Kate says most of the cash is reinvested in product to make larger batches. She still hasn’t recovered the $100,000 of her own money she invested to jumpstart the company.
Every obstacle possible seems to thrust its way into the sisters’ lives. Still, they pour their hearts into the business. They won’t quit until there’s a pair of sisters in every town across America.
I asked Sister Kate what she thought God thinks of them selling marijuana on the internet.
“He’s blessed our efforts,” she says. “And he called us to this. Therefore it’s will.”