From Raid to Revival: How One Dispensary Owner Battles the War on Drugs
Sespe Creek Collective is a medical cannabis dispensary in Ojai, California owned by Chelsea Sutula.
Chelsea is the face of a new kind of soldier in this drug war, a pioneer in the legal cannabis industry. She is reserved yet determined, passionate about human and animal rights, and wise regarding the business world. Her attention to detail proved invaluable as she has gone to great lengths to follow the ever changing regulations of the cannabis industry. However, the war on drugs isn’t just fought on the streets anymore and in November 2016 her collective was raided. During the raid police took many of her personal possessions and trampled on her hard work and dreams. She did not shed tears, or crumble under the pressure. Instead, she rolled her sleeves up and kept moving forward.
Despite having pending criminal charges hanging over her head, one year later she reopened as the first medical dispensary in her county. Now, her dispensary is not only a way for her to advocate for patient rights, but a platform to educate the public regarding ending the war for countless Cannabis POW’s still serving deadly prison sentences.
Who better but Chelsea herself to explain the details? Here is a raw look into the life of a pioneer in the industry.
Q: What led you to decide to be the pioneer store-owner in your county?
A: I set this intention awhile ago when I saw how desperately Ventura County needed people to step up for patients’ rights, but it really crystallized after I was raided. I’ve been begging various cities for a permit to operate since 2013 so being the first permitted dispensary to open in 2017 felt very vindicating.
Q: Would you describe what it was like for you to be raided and how that has changed the way you have proceeded, if at all? Did you see this raid coming? Had you previously felt safe?
A: Yes I felt I was doing everything possible by the book, this raid and arrest made me really angry and resentful I think more than anything. I was going above and beyond trying to work with city and county officials.
I asked for a meeting with our county sheriff and he granted me one less than 2 months before his offices raided me. He kept saying, “Wait until November, wait until November” when the election to decide Prop 64 would apparently bring great clarity to the situation for him. So in November a week before the election, I was definitely not expecting to get raided. It was clearly timed as a warning.
It felt like a kick in the stomach. It also felt very pathetic to me. All Sheriff Dean could focus on was how much money he thought our industry was, or would be making. He refused to believe that for some people it’s not about the money. Also, what money? We were paying our taxes, which as every compliant operator understands, effectively takes all profit out of the equation. The tax man takes everything. So it was really pathetic yet very satisfying for me to know that several officers were digging holes all over my yard for a few hours, fruitlessly looking for buried cash. Give me a break. They turned my compost piles for me, at least.
I am gratified to know that Sheriff Dean is not running for re-election this year; he ruined a lot of lives with this miscalculated attack on a medical collective. I haven’t changed anything about the way I run, I continue to do the best job I can following all the laws and making education and outreach a big part of what distinguishes us from other dispensaries.
Q: What have been some of your biggest obstacles?
A: I would say the sheriff’s department used to be, now they seem to have backed off since the state regulations went into effect and since we got a permit to open officially from both Ojai and the state. Disgruntled employees are the next biggest issue I’ve faced in the past. It can be a challenge to find people who are truly trustworthy and willing to do the hard work before enjoying the perks of the job. They also see a lot of money coming in and don’t necessarily see all the expenses going out. So sometimes they assume that I’m getting rich off of their backs, which is just not true. Banking of course. Dealing with cash can feel like such a curse. I was turned down for a home loan after I got pre-approved and made an offer, because they decided being employed in this industry was too risky. After they took my $2K for an appraisal and inspection.
Q: Sespe Creek Collective started out relatively small. How has your store grown over the last 6 months?
A: Before we got raided, we had a bustling delivery service throughout Ventura County. When we were forced to close for a year, many of those people found other services to meet their needs and several of those were still operating when we re-opened as a dispensary in November 2017. But now the black market has really been edged out in the sense that if you’re looking branded manufactured products like Kiva chocolate bars and Dosist vape pens, you have to buy from a licensed dispensary like us.
I opted not to have a grand opening, which likely contributed to the slow start. I was essentially out of money and had underestimated the amount of start-up inventory I would need to make our big showroom feel appropriately full. So it took us some time to build it up and bring more of our old patients back. A lot of people were waiting until January 1 because they were under the false impression that we would be open to adult use consumers after January 1, but that wasn’t the case. We’re still a medical-only shop as of this moment. So we saw a big uptick after January 1 when people realized they still needed recommendations for awhile longer in Ventura County.
Q: How would you describe a first time customer experience at your shop?
A: We get feedback from people that our store is beautiful and feels warm and welcoming, which is exactly what I was going for. I know it can be overwhelming for people to see how many options are available today – and I only even carry a small portion of what’s out there! Our staff are very friendly and can help any new patient feel like they’re on a good starting point for their wellness journey. But it helps when patients do some research ahead of time to understand what their needs and wants are, and if they are working with a budget.
Q: What advice would you give other women who may want to be the first in their field of interest but aren’t quite sure how?
A: Establish connections with other women in other close fields and absorb their confidence if you need to. Be willing to start small and work your way up, and offer to do something or give something back if you expect something free in return. Play to your strengths! We all have them. Be prepared to work your butt off and sacrifice in other areas. I’m not sure I’d be where I am in this industry if I had a thriving social life or children. Do lots of research, gain confidence through knowledge.
Q: You carry two lines of products that support and highlight people in prison for cannabis. In an industry where people often fail to believe others still go to prison for the plant, what led you to be interested in The Pot Fairy line and Michael Pelletier’s Art?
A: Deedee (Kirkwood) was a blessing to me after I was raided and arrested. I’ll never forget her kindness and compassion during some of the darkest days of my life. She introduced me to some other people doing amazing work and told me all about her pen pal relationships with prisoners and her Pot Fairy line, which I loved. It was so inspiring and really helped put my recent troubles in perspective.
I spent a single night in jail. I experienced a lot of different emotions that night. But that’s nothing compared to what these guys have experienced. She inspired me to keep going! She gave me love and support when I really needed it. And it was just obvious to me that if I could create a space for her Pot Fairy line to get some attention, I absolutely would. I’m blessed with a big space to work with. And when it was proposed that I could display Michael Pelletier’s art, I was thrilled. I love telling people about the man behind the paintings. I think some others might be interested in contributing in more meaningful ways once this issue gets more attention. It’s time to bring clemency to these guys!
Q: Why do you think it is important as a business owner to give back in this way?
A: I think it’s just important for people to realize what kind of sacrifices have been made to get to this point, where we are legal in California and getting closer everyday to federal rescheduling. People need to be reminded that the drug war is not over even while we embrace a new industry here. We still have a lot of work to do!
If you are in California stop by Sespe Creek Collective, meet Chelsea and her staff and see Deedee Kirkwood’s Pot Fairy line and Cannabis POW Michael Pelletier’s Art in person. Sespe Creek Collective is located at 408 Bryant Circle, Suite C, Ojai, CA. Or go online here. You can see for yourself that putting patients first and remembering to help those who are in need can make the difference. Chelsea’s experiences navigating the ever changing cannabis laws is a reminder that ‘legalization’ is not synonymous with freedom. The war is not over and Chelsea is a soldier with no intention of losing.
Visit Art by Michael Pelletier to view and purchase art made by Michael Pelletier, who is serving a life sentence for cannabis. All proceeds go directly to him so he can continue to purchase paint supplies and basic personal items, such as toothpaste and soap.
The Pot Fairy can be found here. All proceeds go directly to the commissaries of people serving life sentences for cannabis crimes.
Update: As of May 31 2018 the district attorney dropped all charges. Chelsea won.
Author: Mindi Hunt
Sespe Creek Collective Website: Sespe Creek Collective
Photo Credits: Chelsea Sutula, Deedee Kirkwood, Matthew Hill