Are owners of Ethnobotanica just blowing smoke?
November 2, 2015
By KAREN VELIE
The founder of a medical marijuana business attempting to open a dispensary in San Luis Obispo County has a lengthy criminal history, including a felony arrest and conviction for possession of a dangerous drug with intent to sell.
Ethnobotanica is seeking to open a 2,500-square-foot medical marijuana dispensary at 2122 Hutton Road in Nipomo, near the edge of the Santa Barbara County line. The San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors is scheduled to vote on whether or not to approve the facility Tuesday afternoon.
Since 2008, Ethnobotanica has operated a delivery service providing medical marijuana to residents of several counties in California.
Ethnobotanica founder Ryan Leroy Booker, 36, was first arrested in San Luis Obispo County in 1998. Over the next eight years, Booker was charged locally on 25 separate occasions with misdemeanors including drunk in public, battery, public consumption of alcohol and trespassing, according to San Luis Obispo County Superior Court records.
In Santa Cruz County, Booker has also been arrested several times. In 2001, Booker was arrested on four charges. At the time, he was operating under the alias Ryan Leroy Sage, according to court records.
“The arrests were because law enforcement officers do not understand the law,” said Ethnobotanica executive director Stephanie Kiel. “The charges (in Santa Cruz County) have all been dropped.”
On Feb. 1, 2002, a Santa Cruz County jury found Booker guilty of a felony charge of possession with intent to sell a dangerous drug. He was sentenced to 60 days in jail followed by probation that ended on June 19, 2005, according to court records.
“I had some mushrooms on a beach in Santa Cruz,” Booker said in a telephone interview Monday night. “They were not even my mushrooms. I took the fall for a girl whose mushrooms they all were.”
Booker said he made mistakes, but 10 years ago when Stephanie Kiel gave birth to their son, he cleaned up his act.
“I made mistakes as a young person, I corrected those mistakes,” Booker said. “I have only been arrested once since my son was born.”
It is unclear who the executive director of Ethnobotanica is. Multiple newspaper articles, some from the same publications, have varying answers. Booker and Kiel have both claimed to be the founder of the company. Booker says Ethnobotanica began operating in 2008.
Kiel claims Booker no longer works for Ethnobotanica. However, an employee who answered the phone Monday said Booker had just left for the day.
“He just likes to come and hang out,” Kiel said.
State records and media reports give a hazy picture of the company’s leadership.
In 2009, Ryan Booker filed corporation records for the Ethnobotanica Patient Cooperative with the California Secretary of State’s Office.
In 2011, Kiel, Booker’s long-time friend and the mother of his two children, filed corporation records for Ethnobotanica and Booker dissolved Ethnobotanica Patient Cooperative, according to state records.
That was before those behind Ethnobotanica began planning to open a brick and mortar marijuana shop in Nipomo. In a 2015 Tribune article, a reporter writes that Kiel founded Ethnobotanica Patient Cooperative in 2009.
“We knew this (his criminal history) was going to come up,” Booker said when asked why the differing stories. “We started the business together.”
Kiel and Booker blame the exposure of his criminal records on former employees who have competing businesses.
“Employees go off and start their own businesses, and then they start spreading lies,” Kiel said.
Booker blames competition in a highly lucrative industry where marijuana dispensaries and delivery services are run as nonprofits.
“They are operating delivery services that will be wrecked if the dispensary is open,” Booker said.
In response to questions about the nonprofit status of Ethnobotanica, Booker said there is a lot of money to be made in salaries. Booker compared medical marijuana dispensaries to the government.
“It’s like the county,” Booker said. “Its a nonprofit, with the sheriff making six figures. You can’t have ownership, but you are still allowed to make money.”
When asked who the original board members were when he started Ethnobotanica Patient Cooperative in 2009, Booker said Kiel was the only board member.
“You only need one board member, I have lawyers,” Booker said.
In the past eight years, since the county approved an ordinance allowing medical marijuana dispensaries under limited conditions, county supervisors have rejected three different proposals.
In July, the San Luis Obispo County Planning Commission voted 4-1 to approve Ethnobotanica’s proposal, with District 4 Commissioner Jim Harrison dissenting.
Nevertheless, multiple public officials including the sheriffs from both San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties, have voiced concerns over increased crime if the dispensary is approved.