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Weed Nuns & Cannabis Churches

Scrolling through TikTok a few weeks ago, as The Youngs like myself do, a video popped up that caught my attention right away. Aubrey Plaza, an actor beloved by a particular type of millenial like myself, sat between two nuns in a cloud of smoke. The full video, from Youtube channel Cut, is called “Aubrey Plaza Smokes Pot with the Weed Nuns” and I had to see it for myself. It’s cute, you should check it out if it sounds like a fun five minutes. 

Seeing these women in habits, trimming buds and sharing joints, reminded me that cannabis has been a part of the human spiritual experience for a really long time. It’s unlikely that that’s going to change anytime soon, so how has cannabis reentered modern spiritual and religious arenas? And what the hell is a weed nun?


Sisters of the Valley

First things first, let’s talk about these weed nuns. The women in the video with Aubrey Plaza are Sister Kate and Sister Evie of Sisters of the Valley (SotV), and while yes, they are nuns, it’s not in the traditional way that people imagine. When people think of habit-wearing nuns, they are typically associated with Catholicism or some other Christian-based religious organization. The Sisters of the Valley, however, are not associated with Christianity and instead consider themselves a group of spiritual activists. Wikipedia calls them a small business, which for all intents and purposes they are.


From what I can find, it appears as though Sisters of the Valley went through a kind of metamorphosis before becoming what they are today. Sister Kate, formerly Christine Meeusen, owner and “lead Sister”, was at one time an international business consultant who specialized in helping her clients open businesses in newly deregulated industries. After what their website calls a “devastating divorce,” Sister Kate and her children moved to the Central Valley of California, and broke into the newly deregulated cannabis market there in an effort to create “work and leadership opportunities for more women like her.” In 2009 she founded a non-profit cannabis collective that, when they opened in 2010, provided CBD medicines to patients looking for an alternative to smoking.


Then, in 2011 congress declared pizza a vegetable – which isn’t even about pizza, but tomato paste and how much of it counts as a serving of vegetables – to which Sister Kate responds, “If pizza is a vegetable, I’m a nun.” It says on their website that the Sisterhood was “born of the Occupy movement of 2011” and that after the pizza declaration, Sister Kate began her activism, but is unclear about what this activism was. For the next three years she was encouraged to formalize the order and developed her first line of products for Sisters of the Valley in 2014, with sales beginning in 2015.


What the Sisters of the Valley do is cultivate cannabis – with the help of male members called Brothers – and create CBD products like tinctures, oils, soaps and teas. They encourage their members and supporters to be active in cannabis law reform efforts and they seem to take great pride in serving their patients and the CBD medicine they make. What makes the Sisters unique is their incorporation of what they call pre-Christian Beguine revivalism – yeah, I didn’t know what that was either and we’ll cover it in a second – as well as “Native” traditions and new-age spiritualism. The cannabis and CBD products are grown, produced and bottled in conjunction with the cycles of the moon – “set on the new moon, and bottled under the full moon” – and duties are often separated by gender.


They believe that the women are called to the sacred healing work therefore they produce the CBD products, and Brothers of the order do the cannabis growing – though the FAQ does state that it’s an elder’s responsibility to identify which people really desire to do a certain job and make those exceptions accordingly.


Beguines were groups of women in the middle ages who chose to live a life of religious devotion without joining a particular religious order. They would often live in communities called beguinages where they would live and work together, usually in religious contemplation. Not only did these communities provide for these women spiritually, but also socioeconomically. One source in my research called it a “surplus of unattached women in urban areas”, which probably means there were a lot of unmarried women around and people really hated that in the 12th century. Beguinages – sometimes a home shared between women and sometimes a walled community of houses – gave these women a place to live and work independently, to support themselves within a community. They often took vows of chastity while there, but were free to leave and marry if they wanted. Honestly, being a Beguine sounds like it would have been a top of the list alternative for me as an unmarried 32 year old who doesn’t really want to be married to Jesus for the rest of my life.


As for why they dress the way they do, the website calls it a uniform and they say in their FAQ that it serves a few different purposes, but seems to primarily be a way to identify their enclave. It also serves a spiritual and meditative purpose for the Sisters.

While the Sisters likely grow mostly low THC, high CBD cannabis plants, one thing I noticed from the Youtube video that is noticeably absent from their website is mention of cannabis use. The SotV website states that they are against alcohol or drug abuse anywhere near the workplace, but it was obvious from the video that they believe cannabis is a sacred plant in all of it’s forms, including the high THC variety and I doubt that they consider partaking of cannabis during a work day “drug abuse.”


It’s not clear if the Sisters live communally, but their website focuses heavily on their desire to create a safe and welcoming environment for women and their children. Not so unlike the Beguines they so wish to emulate. The Sisterhood’s deal, outside of the CBD products and new-age spirituality, appears to be bolstering and empowering women in business and leadership, as well as their community, by providing what they call honorable jobs. The website heavily implies that you don’t have to be a Sister or a member of the order to work at their Merced, California facility, but I couldn’t find a clear answer.

Cannabis Churches

While I’m not going to sit here and say that the Sisterhood of the Valley is simple to explain, the cannabis churches are even more widely varied and, believe it or not, sometimes political. I know, gasp, right? Where the weed nuns have been blending cannabis industry, spirituality and ritual, cannabis churches in America are founding new religions with cannabis at the center. Here we’re going to look at two examples of American churches that incorporate cannabis into their belief structure and see how varied these religions can be.


The International Church of Cannabis was founded by a group of people in Denver, Colorado and opened to members on April 20th, 2017. Members, who are known as Elevationists, participate in what they call mindful ritual use of cannabis to “reveal the best version of self, discover a creative voice and enrich their community with the fruits of that creativity.” The church believes that spirituality is an individual journey and that cannabis, what they consider to be a sacred flower, can facilitate deep and sometimes transcendental experiences for their members. The church building, which is an old, renovated Lutheran church with a colorfully painted interior, is open to the public, but cannabis consumption is allowed only for members, who must be at least 21 years old. Recreational cannabis use has been legal in Colorado since 2012, but public consumption of cannabis is not. Behind the International Church of Cannabis is the non-profit Elevation Ministries, and Elevationism is federally protected as long as it is considered a sincere religious belief.


Elevationists aren’t required to adhere to any specific religion or dogma, or believe in a single god or god at all. According to their website, they refer to a Universal Creative Force, but their emphasis on spiritual individuality extends to each member deciding what this means for themselves. From what I can gather, the function of the church is to be a place for people at all stages of their spiritual journey to be part of an organization that is not just accepting, but understanding and encouraging of cannabis as a part of that journey. Regardless of the prior religious affiliation – or lack thereof – of their members, Elevationists believe that their practices can be an effective supplement. Their main principle is to live by the Golden Rule; treat others the way you want to be treated.


What I find interesting about this particular canna-church is that, despite the sincerity they portray on their website and my general agreement that spiritual cannabis spaces can be a good thing, I get the feeling that it’s primary function is a tourist trap. I’m definitely no expert on the legality of churches and profit and non-profits, but I do know that churches of all kinds have been taking money from lots of people and getting away with it for longer than the International Church of Cannabis has been around. This is entirely speculation, and based on a gut feeling I have, but there’s something bizarre to me about any church’s top search hits being Yelp and TripAdvisor reviews. There were also some rumblings concerning one of the co-founders of the church, Steve Berke, co-owning the building and Elevation Ministries signing a licensing and management agreement with Bang Digital Media, a cannabis marketing company founded by none other than Steve Berke.


Where the International Church of Cannabis has taken a modern approach to cannabis spirituality by trying to shrug off the stoner stereotypes and incorporate a more modern-feeling spiritualism, the First Church of Cannabis seems to have embraced the tie-dyed hippie aesthetic and taken a much more political angle, at least at its inception.


Founded in March 2015 by Bill Levin, the First Church of Cannabis was created in direct response to Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) that was passed also in March of 2015, and Levin claims to have gained tax-exempt status within 30 days of filing. The RFRA was a controversial bill at the time that essentially extended the right of free exercise of religion to for-profit businesses and provided a legal defense for lawsuits brought against them by private citizens. Their website’s assertion that they were going to “test” RFRA leads me to believe that Levin was attempting to see if these protections would extend to all religious beliefs and not just belief systems deemed worthy of protection, though this is just my speculation and the actual reason is unclear. The plan was to have a service on July 1, 2015 that would incorporate cannabis into the service, but pressure and legal threats from the city deterred them. Days after the first service, they sued the state of Indiana and the city of Indianapolis, claiming that the current cannabis laws infringed on their religious beliefs, but the case was dismissed, as was an appeal.


It’s hard to figure out exactly what The First Church of Cannabis’ belief structures are, but like the International Church of Cannabis, they don’t seem to adhere to any preexisting religion or religious structure. Despite a lack of what we might consider obvious religious dogmas, they do have a set of 12 guidelines put forth by the church called the Deity Dozen. The Deity Dozen includes all kinds of things from starting your day with a smile and treating your body as a temple – specifically mentioning avoiding soda and “low quality” food – to “don’t be a troll on the internet” and “never start a fight, only finish it.” The final guideline is what gives us the canna-church goods, though, reading “Cannabis, ‘the Healing Plant’ is our sacrament. It brings us closer to ourselves and others. It is our fountain of health, our love, curing us from illness and depression. We embrace it with our whole heart and spirit, individually and as a group.”


The First Church of Cannabis is still alive and well, as far as I can tell, and holding live services on Facebook every Wednesday at 7:30pm EST.


While all three of these organizations have varying beliefs, structures and methodologies, the common thread is their belief that cannabis is not only healing, but can be a tool for enhancing spiritual or religious experiences. This thread has travelled forward in time with us from ancient practitioners who held similar beliefs and used cannabis in religious and spiritual rituals, and it’s interesting to see these themes rise again and again in the ongoing story of cannabis and cannabis culture. While I may not be a practitioner of any religion or canna-centric spiritual practices, I can recognize that there may have been a gap in our society of people seeking a place where their passion for cannabis and their chosen spiritual path is encouraged on all fronts, and places like Sisters of the Valley, the International Church of Cannabis and the First Church of Cannabis provide these spaces.

 


Laura Mastropietro

Kelly Mahoney worked at a medical cannabis Co-op with her mother, Laura Mastropietro, dealing mainly with helping new patients acquire their medical cards and helping them find the best strains and methods. Diagnosed at a young age with spinal muscular atrophy, she was also a medical cannabis patient and still advocates for the incredible benefits, and downright fun, of cannabis. She now lives in a prohibition state as a cat mom and gamer wife.

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