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Meet Chelsea Sutula of Sespe Creek Collective in Ojai

Today we’d like to introduce you to Chelsea Sutula.

Chelsea, please share your story with us. How did you get to where you are today?
I moved to California in 2009 for a job in business development and design research at a product design consultancy. The work was interesting but the culture really wasn’t a good fit for me, so I quit in 2011 to figure out how to be able to work in line with my passions again. I had a dog walking business on the east coast for a few years in a past life and although it turned out to be challenging in ways I could never really overcome, it planted the seed that I needed to, and could successfully be, my own boss.

I stumbled into the cannabis business by luck; I was working on a few projects from home when I requested delivery from a new service I wanted to try and ended up talking to one of the owners for a few hours about the possibility of me working with them. The following week I was doing farm chores and getting paid in flower. Shortly thereafter I was figuring out delivery logistics for them so they could expand. Then I was answering phones, budtending, inventory management, doing accounting, marketing and running some deliveries. I did everything until I could hire someone else to do it. Eventually, the two founding brothers that started the farm decided they were done, so I took over completely in 2013.

Has it been a smooth road?
Not at all smooth, no. I determined quickly that I am not a master grower. I had some early conflicts with the founding brothers about how things needed to be done and came close to quitting on a few occasions. But really being the most overtaxed and over-regulated business in the world without normal access to banking has been the main source of my daily stress.

We also got raided by the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office in 2016, less than a week before California voted to legalize cannabis. At the time I had 20 people on staff and they all filed for unemployment. They took everything under a sealed search warrant. I was denied access to an attorney while continuing to be questioned by detectives in violation of my rights. I was then arrested and sat in a freezing jail cell in a skirt for around 18 hours before they gave me something to eat. It was eye-opening to see the inside of the criminal justice system in our country. As soon as you are arrested you are treated as if you are guilty in jail. I had never been arrested before so it was pretty traumatic to open your office door to a fully armed SWAT team. They impounded my pets from inside my home and turned it upside down looking for piles of cash that existed only in the detective’s imaginations. Then I had to borrow $50K from my parents to hire a lawyer to defend myself. The DA dropped the charges last May but I still have to wait until next year to take steps to get my property back. They still have one of my private journals, all my computers and backup hard drives with photos and music, and about $250K of now worthless cannabis inventory.

I’ve been kicked off leases and denied housing for being in this industry. It’s not for the faint of heart.

Tell us more about the business.
Sespe Creek Collective is a boutique dispensary in Ojai that caters to a pretty diverse crowd. I wanted to make it a place that fit the Ojai vibe, and I think we were able to accomplish that. The setting goes a long way towards making people feel comfortable with something that’s been so demonized for so long.

I’m also really proud of the fact that we have been able to create a special place where people can ask questions without feeling embarrassed and can find more medically oriented products as well as your standard flower, pre-rolls, and vapes. We’ve held several educational events over the years too, which I think the community appreciates.

I’m most proud of the fact that we were able to overcome a gross injustice and with the community’s support, we were the first licensed dispensary to open in Ventura County. We opened on the first anniversary of getting raided, so it was very satisfying for me. We had so many people rallying for us, it felt good to show them we weren’t giving up.

What sets us apart is our approach to customer service and budtender education, as well as our focus on fundraising for pot lifers. I staged an exhibit this past year in our shop with my friend Deedee Kirkwood, (aka to shine a light on the dozens of guys currently serving life sentences for non-violent cannabis crimes. That’s been important to me since I met Deedee shortly after being raided and arrested — it put my situation in perspective and reminded me how lucky I was to even have the opportunity to get licensed for this. The exhibit is closed now but we were successful I think in raising awareness and we continue to raise money for their prison commissary accounts so they can buy things like toothpaste and emails to family.

How do you think the industry will change over the next decade?
I think cannabis will no longer be a Schedule I substance in the next 5-10 years if not sooner, but what that means for our industry is very uncertain. If big pharma and big ag take over, our industry is doomed. But if it’s mainstreamed and licensing opens up in those dry counties where retailers are currently banned, then our industry stands to grow like analysts are predicting. I predict some cross-pollination conflicts between hemp and cannabis farmers. And inevitably, overly restrictive onsite consumption rules are going to be relaxed next. Consumption of cannabis is still largely in the shadows.

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