Down The Wormhole: Pot Dispensary/Church/Restaurant Tangled in Dispute With South Park Landlord Sal Hernandez

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The Rev. DeMaris Strohm-Hughes believes that weed is a holy sacrament. She also thinks medical marijuana users ought to have a place where they can go out to a nice meal and smoke a bowl at the same time. Her former landlord, however, is arguing in court that she neglected to pay more than $9,000 in rent as she endeavored to make her prayers come true.

Strom-Hughes, 58, is the proprietor of The Wormhole, a dispensary that has been around in one form or another in south Seattle since 2004. The "non-profit patient outreach" center dovetails with her religious beliefs, a little known sect called The Religion Church of Jesus. As Strom-Hughes explains, she considers marijuana, "a green, seed-bearing plant given to me by God."

Kooky though it may sound, The Religion Church of Jesus is not something Strom-Hughes made up herself. It was established in 1969 by a Hawaiian minister named Rev. James Kimmel (no, not that Jimmy Kimmel), and later recognized by the state. The faith borrows from Christianity, Hinduism, and Buddhism, but its primary religious text is the little-known The Urantia Book, developed in the U.S. in the early 20th century. The religion's website lists a dozen reasons why "the holy herb" is essential to worship, and, in addition to the belief that weed "increases spiritual elevation," one of the reasons that the drug has healing properties.

In 2006, Strom-Hughes began renting space from Sal Hernandez, an investor who owns multiple properties in the South Park neighborhood. Strom-Hughes, herself an authorized medical marijuana user, says she created a food and clothing bank, assisted low income people with rent, and occasionally hosted religious services there, in addition to her dispensary operation. Then, in 2007, she got the idea for a restaurant and lounge geared toward medical users.

"I can't go to dinner anymore and enjoy a meal with friends and family," Strom-Hughes says. "In order to eat that meal I've got to out to the car and puff a few puffs before I go back in. I'm not the only one in that situation. People deserve a night way from my house where i can have a night with friends with somebody else doing the cooking."

Hernandez owns and leases both residential and commercial properties. He's best known for his chain of "Mexi-Mart" grocery stores, the original of which is on 14th Avenue South in South Park, but he also had a vacant restaurant space next door. In 1999 he opened a restaurant called -- no kidding -- La Viagra Marina, because the restaurant served seafood dishes, a natural aphrodisiac that gives diners "energy." Pfizer wasn't buying it, and threatened to sue him for trademark infringement if he didn't change the name. The business eventually folded, and the storefront was empty when Strom-Hughes offered to open shop there in April, 2007.

According to court documents, the Wormhole diner expansion never got off the ground. On August 27, 2009, three months after Strom-Hughes signed the lease, and three days before the restaurant's scheduled grand opening, Hernandez served her with a notice to pay rent or vacate the premises within three days. He claims that his tenant owes him $9,000 in back rent. The lawsuit has dragged on since then, with Hernandez seeking the unpaid rent, plus interest, attorney fees, and "double damages."

Strom-Hughes' attorney, Jeffrey Rupert, writes in his own court filings that Hernandez claimed the property was "turn key ready" for a restaurant, but that upon further inspection, none of the kitchen equipment worked, there was no natural gas, and the premises were "filthy." The two sides allegedly worked out a verbal agreement that Strohm-Hughes could make the necessary repairs and deduct the cost from her rent payments. Hernandez's attorney, Jacob Bozeman, writes that his client never made such a deal. Bozeman did not respond to several messages from Seattle Weekly inquiring about the case.

Strom-Hughes, meanwhile, accuses Hernandez of being "a slumlord," who tricked her into "cleaning up his building and making it inhabitable for others." "He saw money and wanted more," she says. "Why else give me a three-day notice to comply ten days after the restaurant is finished? He wanted to steal it away from me. I honestly don't think he though I'd fought back because I deal pot."

Hernandez currently leases another space that houses a medical marijuana dispensary, the Cut Loose Collective on 14th Avenue South. Court records indicate he has been involved in dozens of landlord-tenant disputes over the past decade and a half, with some of his residents making claims about the condition of Hernandez's properties similar to those of Strohm-Hughes. In one case involving an apartment on South Cloverdale Street, a tenant fighting eviction and representing himself in court wrote that his unit had several broken windows, a broken shower and tub, and was overrun by cockroaches. "This apartment is not fit for a human or child to live in," the man wrote, explaining why he hadn't paid rent. "It is taking me three months to save enough money to move my family to someplace livable." Hernandez won the case, and his tenant was evicted.

Strom-Hughes says she is now running her Wormhole operation out of her home in West Seattle. Her dispute was scheduled to be heard in King County Superior Court on Monday, but was postponed indefinitely.

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