by Kimberly Rivers
It’s said the wheels of justice turn slowly. In the case of a 2016 arrest and seizure of hundreds of thousands of dollars of medical cannabis products, that saying rings true.
As of press deadline, Chelsea Sutula, founder and operator of Sespe Creek Collective, a cannabis dispensary based in Ojai, is still waiting for the return of medical marijuana products seized during a raid on her offices and home in 2016. After an investigation, raid and being arrested by the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department, all charges were ultimately dismissed by the court. Finally, on Sept. 28, 2021, nearly five years later, the court ordered the products seized returned to her.
“This is the final chapter in my criminal case from 2016,” said Sutula. Computers and a few other items were returned to her last year. “They wouldn’t return all the cannabis until the statute of limitations on all charges ran out,” she believes. Her attorney filed a motion to return all of the seized items, it was granted, the Ventura County District Attorney did not object, and yet, she still waits.
“I”m having a difficult time getting anybody on the phone,” said Sutula. The paperwork is all signed and filed with the court, and has the judge’s signature. On Oct. 12 the court said the Sheriff should accept her paperwork, but the Sheriff told her they need it officially from the court. “They are giving me the run around. Once this phase is finished, then I can seek damages.”
The cannabis products are “non-usable, non-salable,” as they’ve been sitting in the evidence room since 2016. “I have to destroy it by law.”
Sutula’s office and home were raided and she was arrested a week before the Tuesday election of Nov. 8, 2016, when California voters cast ballots declaring medical marijuana and recreational marijuana legal.
Today, “technically as a licensed cannabis [dispensary] business I don’t have a transport license, so I’m not legally allowed to transport to my [licensed place of business].” So to follow the letter of the law, Sutula will have to hire a licensed transporter just to collect it, and bring it to her offices, where she can then destroy it. She said her attorney has advised her that if she’s acting as an agent of her licensed dispensary, especially since the product is going to be destroyed, she would probably be fine to transport it to her dispensary for destruction.
Sutula estimates the value of what was seized at about $350,000 “market value, resale at the time they took it. I kept a pretty accurate inventory list.” She said the way it was seized and listed in the court order is a “total sham of proper procedure, in my opinion . . . when they took all that property during the raid, they are saying 27 bags of marijuana. No way. They dumped it all in the garbage bags and called it a bag.” Marijuana was frequently packaged in small zip-lock plastic bags.
A morning raid in SWAT gear
Proposition 64 was on the ballot in November 2016. The law asked Californians if adults should be able to legally use cannabis for non-medical use.
“I was very vocal and active,” recalled Sutula. “Mainly in Ojai, the only city willing to work with us instead of just banning dispensaries like everywhere else. I spoke at a town hall meeting, everyone knew who I was.”
At that time her dispensary was in a nondescript industrial park in Oxnard. It was only a delivery service. “Nobody knew where we were. It was a nonprofit, medical-only collective. Totally in compliance with SB420 and Prop 215. We paid all taxes, our employees were employees, not contractors. We paid workers’ compensation insurance, everything that we could to comply.”
She remembered it was around 9:30 a.m. on Thursday, Nov. 3, at the Oxnard location. “The Oxnard Police Department was involved. Officers knocked on the door, they said ‘Sheriff’s department, open up.’”
She recalled noting how absurd the officers looked in full SWAT gear. “We were ushered out and told to wait on the curb. The first thing they did was to unplug all the video cameras. They spent their time hooting and hollering. They were excited . . . having a field day in their new gear. Bagging up stuff. I was questioned more than once without access to my attorney.”
Sutula believed they were “convinced I was doing manufacturing there, that they’d find butane, a hash oil lab, or cultivation. They were so clueless coming in. They had no idea it was just totally an office.”
She was charged with two counts of perjury, maintaining a place for selling a controlled substance, and for possession of marijuana.
That night she was questioned for several hours with no access to an attorney. “I sat there in a cell, then was transferred to the main jail.” She was booked and put in a holding cell with people in for DUIs. “I was given no food or water for about 18 hours. It was pretty crappy.”
“They raided my house,” she continued. “They asked me to turn over the key or they would bust in the door. When I asked to see the search warrant, Officer James Langford said ‘this isn’t the movies,’ it was a sealed search warrant. They could do whatever they wanted.”
Her home in Ventura (online correction) was raided. “My pets were impounded that night. I had been able to make arrangements to have a friend come and take care of them.” But the sheriff’s department put all her pets in the Camarillo Animal Shelter. The first thing she did upon being released from jail was “get them out. I had to pay to get them out. They all came home with kennel cough.”
The raid meant the end for the dispensary.
“When they raided us, obviously they took all the inventory. Everybody lost their jobs. That was the end at that particular moment. I spent a night in jail and was released the next day.”
Around that same time, the city of Ojai passed an emergency ordinance regulating dispensaries and the community “rallied around Jeff Kroll [Shangri La Care Cooperative], there was a similar action against him.”
With Ojai now allowing dispensaries, she applied to get licensed. “I had to find investors, started over from scratch . . . and relinquished 40% of [my] equity of the collective.” Sutula was able to get a dispensary up and running again. “We hired several people back, and opened exactly a year later in Ojai . . .19 months after they arrested me all charges were dismissed. I was found not guilty on all charges by the court.”
Geoff Dean was Ventura County Sheriff at the time of the raid. He did not seek reelection in 2018.
The Ventura County Sheriff’s Office did not immediately respond to questions about why the items seized from Sutula have not yet been returned to her.