In the heart of the Central Valley, a pair of women who dress in habits, call themselves nuns, and refer to each other as "sister" are growing marijuana in the garage of their Merced tract home.
The strain the "Sisters of the Valley" are growing is high in CBD — the cannabinoid touted by Sanjay Gupta on CNN as the "healing-only, no-high" compound in cannabis — and true to nuns who are into cannabis rather than the crucifix, their plants are harvested according to the cycles of the sun and moon.
For about a year, "Sister Kate" and "Sister Darcey" have distilled their crop into a healing salve that they then sell on Etsy — and at competitive prices. (An 8-ounce jar of their "High CBD Cannabis Salve" is $70, a steal compared to the $88, 4-ounce spray jars found on dispensary shelves in South of Market, though your results may vary.)
The nuns say their operation is all about healing. It also happens to be part of California's biggest and most controversial cash crop, which means the nuns may soon face the choice of going out of business or being run out of town — if not ostracized from the Valley outright.
Merced's City Council is pushing an outright ban on medical marijuana cultivation. Faced with the choice of regulating commercial cannabis activity — which all 530-plus cities and counties in the state can now do under new state law — or banning it, the nuns' elected representatives are choosing to ban. And Merced isn't alone.
Since Gov. Jerry Brown signed the Medical Marijuana Regulation and Safety Act into law in October, cities and counties have been rushing to beat a March 1 deadline to regulate cannabis or ban it — or else be subjected to state law that expressly allows commercial cannabis activity.
That deadline is a "mistake" that somehow crept into the final language of the MMRSA without anyone noticing, according to Asm. Jim Wood (D-Healdsburg), the bill's author, and will soon be corrected by the Legislature, but that hasn't stopped dozens of cities and counties from saying "no way" to legal cannabis operations.
By mid-December, dispensary bans had been rushed through and approved in 19 cities, the Los Angeles Times reported. According to a running list kept by activists, at least 87 California local governments are considering or have approved bans on marijuana growing, selling, or delivery.
Only a handful of cities and counties have gone the other way and joined places like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, Sonoma and Mendocino counties in allowing cannabis businesses to operate legally.
"Close to 60" places have approved bans since the MMRSA went into effect, says cannabis industry lobbyist Sean Donahoe. "It's nuts."
Under the new rules, commercial weed activity is expressly allowed — provided that the city or county where the activity is located expressly allows it.
Dispensary bans are nothing new. In the Bay Area, most cities in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties outlawed medical cannabis dispensaries years before statewide regulations were a possibility.
What's new is the leeway given to localities to make their own decisions and the ease with which the decision to ban can be made — thanks to some of the forces that helped craft the rules in the first place.
Most smaller cities and counties do not have their own elected or appointed county counsel or city attorney — lawyers who make sure that lawmakers' actions are legal — and rely on attorneys hired on contract.
Any law dealing with urban land use in California requires input from a Sacramento organization called the League of California Cities. Granting preference to "local control" over any state-level mandate and granting cities the choice to say no to marijuana activity was a prerequisite to getting the League to approve the MMRSA.
The contracted attorneys appear to be getting advice from the League's website, where model municipal ordinances — all of which happen to be bans — are posted for anyone to read and glean inspiration from.
The League — which claims to offer those "model bans" purely for "informational" purposes — did not respond to request for comment, but the impact is clear.
The result of "local control has been pushing a ban down everyone's throat," Donahue said. "There are bans on cultivation, on deliveries, on storefronts – for no apparent reason."
Not every municipality has gone the prohibition route. Officials in San Diego appear open to regulating. But the episode demonstrates that in most places in California, cannabis – even the legal kind – is still feared and treated like an unwelcome menace. Even if you are a nun.