Meet Chelsea Sutula, the owner of Sespe Creek Collective in Ojai, CA – a dispensary going above and beyond to set a high standard for the cannabis industry. Chelsea has been on the frontlines lobbying for safe access to cannabis and is a leader in reducing the cannabis industry’s carbon footprint. Heather Dunbar from Sun+Earth Certified sat down with Chelsea to learn more about her journey with cannabis and Sespe Creek Collective.
Sun+Earth: Tell me about yourself, your background, and in particular, your cannabis backstory? What led you to get so involved with this plant and movement?
Chelsea: I didn’t try cannabis until I was a freshman in college. I had friends who smoked, but I wasn’t interested in it, and I held all the stereotypical beliefs about weed smokers. I was one of those people! Then eventually, I had some friends who said they promised it would change my life. The first time I smoked, it took a while to kick it, but when it did, I got it, and it was a very positive experience. It opened my eyes to why people need it. But I didn’t have any access to it and didn’t know how to ask for it. I remember when I went to Amsterdam, which opened my eyes to the next level. And at that point, I had a relationship with cannabis.
I moved to California in 2009, just got divorced, got a new job, and that started a new chapter in my life. That was the first time I had safe access to cannabis. Those were the Prop. 215 days (Compassionate Use Act), but it was the first time I could go into a dispensary with a medical recommendation that I received from a doctor and have access to cannabis.
I stumbled into the cannabis industry in 2011 when I received a delivery from a cannabis startup. I just struck up a conversation about how I could possibly help, and, shortly thereafter, I joined the company. In the beginning, I worked for weed and gas money. I was budtending, answering the phone, doing some delivery driving myself. We were really just scraping it all together.
Eventually, I bought out the owners, and because we were in a county that was very unfriendly to cannabis, at that point, I started to lobby around regulations, and I became a visible person in the industry. Five days before Prop. 64 was adopted, my place was raided, and I was arrested, and that began the next saga. I spent several months fighting that case and also started to pursue obtaining a license in Ojai. We officially opened in November 2017, and we’ll be celebrating our 5-year anniversary this November.
Sun+Earth: Tell me more about Sespe Creek Collective, the values that drive the collective, and anything else you want to share about what sets Sespe Creek apart from other cannabis retailers.
Chelsea: I wasn’t even sure I wanted to open a storefront until after getting arrested, and then it became clear that I had to open a dispensary. And that’s what I did.
I spent a long time working for bad bosses in the past and, because of that, it’s always been important to me to have people who are happy and fulfilled, to never be that kind of boss, to provide a place for people to grow, and to offer as much benefit as the company can give. I want our staff to see their own intrinsic value as an investment in the company. They drive the culture. My goal is to be employee-owned in the next few years!
Another major value is the sustainability aspect. I’ve always been an environmentalist. From the early years, we have monitored our resources and always strived to build a company that valued sustainability. I think it’s just smarter. We are a green-certified business in California, and now, as a member of the Sun+Earth board, I can continue focusing my professional efforts on environmental sustainability. Anything I can do to push these practices is my goal.
Sun+Earth: Congratulations on becoming the most recent Sun+Earth Certified board member! We just finished the Weed Like Change campaign, and Sespe Creek was a founding partner. Can you talk about the impact of the campaign and what you think needs the most attention?
Chelsea: I think we made major strides. It starts with the consumer education piece, and I think we helped place more focus on that. But, there are more consumer education campaigns that need to happen. We need more consumers to understand the benefits of regenerative organic cannabis and get them to ask for Sun+Earth Certified products. If people ask for it, the dispensaries will carry it. We need to focus on getting the Sun+Earth seal out there and communicating what it means to the consumer. But none of this is easy!
The “meet your farmer” events really magnified the quality and importance of the availability and the quality of the Sun+Earth products in a very special way. Here at Sespe Creek, we were already educating our consumers and providing a lot of regenerative organic cannabis, but we still want to raise that bar even higher. I hope the success is noticeable in other retail locations too.
Sun+Earth: Is it important for your customers to understand the regenerative organic supply chain? Are people asking more questions about their cannabis?
Chelsea: Consumers are definitely asking more questions about their cannabis. One of the ways we rate brands is around transparency. If they can’t tell us where and how the cannabis is grown, then we can’t trust them. We want to know where and how it’s grown. That matters to us. There are enough consumers asking these questions that it’s important for budtenders to have the answers.
Sun+Earth: There are so many hurdles and challenges in the industry, but let’s take a moment and flip that to the positive, and share some of your greatest joys about being a part of this movement and what motivates you to do the work you do?
Chelsea: I’m in a place where the hard work is paying off. I have such a great staff, and I am grateful that the shop pretty much runs itself. I’m not as involved in day-to-day operations and can focus more on marketing strategies and business development.
I am so grateful to be in Ojai. Of all the places I could have landed, it’s been one of the most welcoming. We’re lucky to be here. We always have a bounty of samples, and we are swimming in the highest quality cannabis! This all started with wanting safe access. That has always been a goal and something I am so grateful for.
Sun+Earth: What are some of the greatest achievements you’re most proud of?
Chelsea: I’m just proud I’ve made it this far, and I didn’t let law enforcement intimidate me into quitting after they raided and arrested me. I had to close the business for a year, but I was able to consolidate my team and come back even stronger, really to create the industry I want to be a part of. And it took almost four years, but the fact that eventually, the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department was ordered by a judge to return the pounds and pounds of inventory they wrongly confiscated gave me a little satisfaction. There will be no financial compensation for the damages, though. That part still stings sometimes.
Sun+Earth: Since Sespe Creek is such a pioneer in leading the way for a regenerative organic cannabis retail space, what is the advice you would give to other cannabis retailers who want to make the first steps toward a more regenerative and equitable approach?
Chelsea: It’s worth it! Establish an identity as a retailer who cares about your sourcing and thoughtfully curates your brands. Start small. Don’t be wishy-washy, and don’t rely only on what’s trending. Just do it!
Sun+Earth: Is there anything else important you would like to share with SKUNK readers?
Chelsea: Grow more legacy strains! Bring back the strains that people remember from back in the day. They just disappeared, and we need to bring them back. I’d love to see more diversity over the trendy strains. Find what’s special and focus on that. Hang in there, farmers. We love you!! We wouldn’t be here without you.
Heather Dunbar is a passionate, mission-driven sustainability advocate with years of experience in the cannabis industry including cultivation, education, sales and marketing, communications, and strategy. Heather has also worked extensively in the natural products industry and organic food movement, leading product development, brand development, and community outreach for several pioneering businesses. Heather is a natural leader with a passion for improving the world through permaculture, regenerative practices, community development, and using business as a force for good. Heather is a contributing author of multiple publications including, CBD: A Patient’s Guide to Medicinal Cannabis. She holds a degree in Human Development and Health Psychology and an MBA focused on sustainable business strategy and leadership. She is currently the Director of Communications and Marketing for Sun+Earth Certified and Brand Manager for Brother David’s Sacred Allies.