California's Cannabis-Growing 'Weed Nuns' Pray For Profits: BBC
Merced County sits in the middle of California's Central Valley. For as far as the eye can see, there are identical rows of crops, with the occasional farmhouse or family home.
Photo Insert: The "Sisters of the Valley," better known as the Weed Nuns
One of these homes looks unassuming from the outside, Samantha Granville and Sophie Long reported for BBC News.
There's nothing unusual about the building or the land around it, except that there's a small group of women, wearing pristine white habits, burning incense, and singing hymns as they walk in step blessing their cannabis plants.
These women are the "Sisters of the Valley," better known as the Weed Nuns. Led by Sister Kate, the women are members of a self-proclaimed enclave of nuns who identify as healers and feminists, but more importantly, business people. They do not represent an official religion. I chose an industry that is messed up," Sister Kate says.
"It's going to probably be messed up and I'm probably going to have to do a lot of dancing and sidestepping." She's referring to all the confusing technicalities in the laws surrounding California's cannabis industry.
California is home to the so-called "green rush" of cannabis production. It was the first state to legalize medical marijuana in 1996, and recreational use has been legal since 2016. The state's law, however, is full of regulatory loopholes, which means the legality of marijuana cultivation varies from county to county and city to city.
So while it's legal to use cannabis in the state, nearly two-thirds of California cities have banned marijuana businesses, with others making it extremely difficult to obtain permits.
This means that for the Sisters of the Valley, growing their 60 plants outside, here in Merced County, does not fall within the law.
"The sheriffs know that, they just let me do this," admits Sister Kate. "But there's really no reason for them to let me.
"They could have shut me down by now just because it's illegal to grow hemp [cannabis] in this county. "But I think that they know we will just challenge the law and get it changed then in the county… And I think they know it would be a fight they don't want to undertake."
There's a second home on the property which the sisters call "the abbey"- it's where all the medicine-making takes place. Sister Camilla carefully pours super-strength CBD oil into tincture bottles.
They produce and sell all their own hemp-based medicines and salves, a business that before the pandemic was grossing $1.2 million a year (£1 million).
Despite praying for, and blessing every batch, they're now making half that. Selling through dispensaries might help them rebuild, but that would mean even more regulations, and higher taxes.