31 December 2023
Beneath each full moon, a group of women in religious clothing surround a fire near a village in central Mexico.
They breathe in deeply from a joint and blow clouds of marijuana smoke out toward the fire.
Despite their religious clothing, the women are not religious. They are part of an international group founded in 2014 called Sisters of the Valley. The group has promised to spread its ideas about the healing powers of the drug marijuana.
The group also launched a successful small business in the United States, where about twenty states have legalized recreational marijuana use. It sells products made from cannabis, the plant from which marijuana comes.
The Sisters of the Valley business made over $500,000 last year.
But in Mexico, a drug war has hurt the country, and Christianity is built into society. The group says its image of marijuana-smoking nuns is like an act of rebellion, the women say.
The sisters often post on social media, mainly Instagram. The pictures show them caring for cannabis crops, leading workshops, and attending cannabis-related events.
Their business makes around $10,000 each year, small compared to their partners in the U.S.
The five women are careful to hide possible personal and workplace identifiers in the images they post. They do business out of a building with a false storefront.
Cannabis production is a legal gray area in Mexico. Much of the activity remains tied to criminal organizations, called cartels. The women say they worry that both police and crime groups could threaten them.
On a recent weekend, reporters from Reuters news agency visited.
One of the nuns, who uses the name "Sister Bernardet" online, said "The Sisterhood is in a totally different context here in Mexico – because of how religious the country is and because of the plant's ties to cartels."
She asked Reuters to not report her real name as she feared attack or punishment if her identity is discovered. In her main job as a homeopathic caregiver, she prescribes marijuana to her patients with cancer, joint pain and sleep problems.
"We want to take the plant back from the" drug dealers, she said.
The Sisters have borrowed some ideas from the Beguines, a religious movement that existed for a few hundred years starting in the 1100s. The group, made up of single women, devoted itself to spirituality, scholarship and providing aid to the needy. It was not officially connected to any religion.
The Sisters worldwide say they wear religious clothing called habits to demonstrate uniformity and show respect for the plant.
With the help of Alehli Paz, a chemist and marijuana researcher working with the group, the Sisters in Mexico grow a small crop.
They grow the plants in old paint containers and place them in lines between four walls on a rooftop.
Later, the Sisters move the larger plants to private gardens.
Their work is limited to weekends, when they care for the plants and produce cannabis goods.
The women visit other groups in the expanding cannabis community in Mexico City pushing for full legalization. The women also give workshops that touch on everything from how to make products like cannabis infusions to the chemistry behind the plant.
Business possibilities aside, the women argue that the fight against drugs in Latin America has been a failure, leading to violence and mass imprisonment.
The Sisters of the Valley founder in Mexico calls herself "Sister Camilla" online. She would not give her real name to Reuters. She said she grew up in a religious family. She left home at 16 partly because of her mother's strong religious ideas, she said. When she started Sisters of the Valley Mexico, their relationship became even more difficult.
"It was hard for her to accept," she said about her mother. "She had certain ideas, heavily shaped by religion."
But today, after long talks about the plant and the legalization movement, her mother helps with the group's operations, she said.
I'm John Russell.
Sarah Kinosian reported on this story for Reuters. John Russell adapted it for VOA Learning English.
Words in This Story
joint – n. informal - a marijuana cigarette
marijuana – n. the dried leaves and flowers of the hemp plant that are smoked as a drug
cannabis – n. a drug such as marijuana or hashish that comes from the hemp plant
context – n. the conditions that exist where and when something happens
homeopathic – adj. describes a system of alternative medicine