By Angela Barnett
When Christine Meeusen's daughter moved into her university dorm, she had to jot down something others wouldn't know about her. "My mother's a weed nun," she wrote. The dorm room exploded. "What's a weed nun? Is that a thing?"
Growing weed has always been a thing. The nun part, that's more unusual. A new documentary, Breaking Habits, out this month is about Christine Meeusen and her band of nuns who court controversy growing medicinal marijuana on their California farm. The local sheriff says, dramatically in the film, "They just want to get high!" A local priest chimes in, "We have nuns who are dealers."
Meeusen - or Sister Kate as she goes by these days - and her nuns are not narcotics traffickers but intrepid hemp oil product-makers. "We're making products with medical cannabis which has under 0.3 per cent THC [the compound that produces the high] so it qualifies to be considered hemp," she says down the phone from Merced.
Produced by Rob Ryan, the doco promoting "nuns with guns" could be a clever publicity ploy promoting Meeusen's successful business, Sisters Of The Valley, selling CBD (hemp)-infused salves, oils and tinctures globally, wrapped up in a juicy gangster theme. But Meeusen believes in the healing powers of her products and her back-story is a story in itself.
It hasn't been an easy road. She's had bullets graze her face when she first got into the business, pre-habit, shot at 14 times and plenty of anguish.
At 56, the mother of three was homeless and broke after her husband turned out to be a polygamous fraudster who siphoned their substantial earnings (which she had earned) into foreign bank accounts. Then her brother kicked her out of the home they shared and the weed-growing business they had forged together. "I don't think much about the ex-husband, but the betrayal from my brother, that was real hurt. But now, it's hard to be mad. It was painful to live through but if I hadn't then I wouldn't be able to claim the authentic voice I have now."
That authentic voice is a self-proclaimed one. She's not a Catholic nun but she did grow up in a Catholic family, taught by sisters. Meeusen first donned a nun's outfit during the Occupy movement. The media clocked her using religious symbolism to protest social inequality and dubbed her "Sister Occupy".
The habit stuck. Meeusen and her sisters adopt elements of traditional nun life. Most live on the property, grow their own food, wear matching clothes, take vows of obedience (to moon cycles), take a vow of chastity (but not celibacy) and a vow to do no harm to the planet or people.
Like most religious movements they want recruits but not of the spiritual kind. Meeusen wants to create jobs for women globally. There's only one rule. They have to be into weed. "I've travelled across the world and wherever I went I could get weed, so I know it's everywhere. There are wives and mothers who have played with tinctures and tonics because they don't want to smoke it. A sister who's into holistic medicine could spring up anywhere." Meeusen's got Sisters Of The Valley enclaves in Canada, Mexico, the UK and New Zealand (Coromandel).
By the sound of her voice, she might've enjoyed a few joints but she's no pothead. The products are produced by hand and sold globally, with enclaves paying back a 10 per cent tithe. With 798 testimonies on her site and nearly 100,000 fans on social media, she's built it up over three years to be a $100,000 per month business. Unlike marijuana on the black market, they pay their taxes too, "Over $150k a year," she says. They have strict rules around production, and every guest gets a "sage" cleansing. "We stack medicine and sing chants. We are very protective of the energy while moving it."
The local sheriff doesn't think it's medicinal. "I don't believe for a minute that it's medicine, what background does she have? I haven't seen any evidence," he says in the film.
Hemp is rich in CBD, the chemical compound thought to have therapeutic effects but yet to be proven. These nuns are out to set the record straight. Testimonies from Meeusen range from curing a girl who was having 100 seizures a day to being "200 days seizure-free" to a man who goes without his walking cane on the days he puts hemp salve on his arthritic knees. "We have testimonials but we're not scientists. To stay legal we have to hide the evidence that this is medicine. The FDA would shut us down if we were making claims in the same place where we're selling." She has two websites to deal with this. Last year, the FDA approved the first CBD drug for childhood epilepsy, Dravet syndrome and Lennox-Gastaut syndrome (LGS).
It's easy to view the sage waving, incantation process in the film as smart marketing - Meeusen's a good businesswoman - but she's as genuine as a weed nun can be. "I don't mind you asking - we are very real. We are very spiritual. It's not part of our mission to evangelise on spiritual beliefs. The spirituality is for us. We are humble farm women who get the medicine from the soil to the people in a spiritual manner. It's a bit Wiccan, a bit Native American and it's women-empowering."
In the film, a young nun is close to tears. "The cannabis plant has done so much for me. Growing up, I developed an eating disorder and smoking cannabis was the only way I could eat. Most people know there's some kind of medicine to the plant, Sister Kate wants to help people. The family here heals."
It doesn't seem cultish. Certainly quirky and inclusive.
Museen says local lawmakers treat them like gangsters but "everyone knows it's silly. From the post office guy to the courier, they're letting us know that they get it. All we care about is getting into bed by nine at night."
And growing their weed.
Breaking Habits is in cinemas April 25.