The 'nuns' who grow medical marijuana

Story highlights

  • The spiritual Sisters of the Valley grow medical marijuana in California
  • They use the plant to make various products, including lotions and tinctures

(CNN)The Catholic Church often teaches that there is redemption in suffering, but the spiritual Sisters of the Valley hope to alleviate suffering through a centuries-old tradition familiar to many cloisters and abbeys.

They make salves and lotions and tinctures from plants that are lovingly grown on their California land, harvested around the lunar cycle and cultivated during prayer.
    Their main ingredient, though, is decidedly more modern. The sisters grow potent varieties of medical marijuana they say are rich in cannabidiols, the chemicals thought to reduce nausea, suppress seizures, lower inflammation and help with anxiety and depression. They say their products have little or no THC, the chemical that gets users high.
    While they wear habits and modest clothing, the two religious sisters who are a part of the business have no official connection to the Catholic Church. Their allegiance is to a feminist ideal, to each other, and to a mission they describe on their website: to "respect the breadth and depth of the gifts of Mother Earth, working to bridge the gap between Her and her suffering people."
    Photographers Shaughn Crawford and John DuBois
    Photographers Shaughn Crawford and John DuBois first saw the sisters' story on the local news around Thanksgiving. They knew immediately, without a doubt, what their next project had to be, even if they didn't initially have a commission for it. This would be the perfect passion project if they could talk the sisters into it.
    "We are drawn to stories, the ones that personally interest us, that focus on the unique people out there that you won't know a lot about but should," DuBois said. "People have an idea about people who grow cannabis and people may think they know about nuns, but it is in this place where the two intersect -- this thin area where there is crossover -- that's interesting. That's where we try to jump in."
    Convincing Sister Kate and Sister Darcey to let them in the door wasn't easy. The product demand was so high it was hard to keep up with it, and local media attention further increased demand. Keeping up with business left the sisters little time to talk.
    But "we got there and they were really welcoming and transparent about everything they did in their lives," DuBois said. "Sometimes people are guarded and don't know if they can trust you, but sitting with them confirmed this was the right project."

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    The sisters walked the photographers through their operation as they used simple crockpots and coffee filters to create the special mix that goes into their products.
    "We asked them to do what they normally did, and from time to time (we) would ask them to do things again or to slow down so we could capture it well," DuBois said.
    What some may consider the best shot though -- the photo of one of the sisters smoking marijuana -- was all the sisters' idea.
    "It's one of my favorites, and it was unexpected," DuBois said. "Sister Kate mentioned this photo they had: It's an old Victorian sort of print with this woman sitting in a rocking chair smoking a joint." It inspired the sisters to suggest the shot. Crawford said he noticed the art in the house was a fascinating mix of Catholic items and tchotchkes that hint at cannabis culture.
    "When we do these projects, we are not just trying to capture the people, but we are also trying to show a glimpse of the places and things that go on around them," DuBois said. "And the detail like their calendar with the water and growing cycles on the wall are all interesting details that really tell their story."
    The two photographers only had one day to shoot, but they hope to go back. The sisters have since moved to new land to expand their operation, and they've created their own website. They also hope someday soon to have enough money to roll out a wholesale operation and get their products into stores.
    "These were two really interesting women, and we so enjoyed getting to hang with them," Crawford said.