The Cannabis Candidate

Dispensary owner and Costa Mesa City Council aspirant Sue Lester is ready to 'raise my hand and do what I can for what I think is right'

*This article was altered on Oct. 6, 2010.

There’s no marijuana-leaf sign in front of Herban Elements, no ubiquitous green cross, the most-common motif associated with California’s medical-marijuana dispensaries. Instead, one of Costa Mesa’s most-popular cannabis clubs is tucked inside a two-story stucco office building along Harbor Boulevard, just up the street from the police department. Walking down the street or driving by in traffic, you wouldn’t even know it was there.

Getting inside isn’t easy. You must be 21 or older and carry a valid California driver’s license. Next, you’ll need a doctor’s note allowing you to smoke cannabis under the state’s so-called “Compassionate Use Act,” which since November 1996 has allowed California residents to smoke and possess marijuana for medicinal reasons. If you’ve brought those two items with you, a friendly, petite brunette behind a glass cashier’s window will buzz you through a locked door into Herban Element’s small lobby.

Image by John Gilhooley; photo illustration by Laila Derakhshanian
A potted plant in the Herban Elements lobby
John Gilhooley
A potted plant in the Herban Elements lobby

At this point, the woman who let you in the door is still secured behind yet another cashier’s window accessible from the lobby side of the locked door. Beneath this window is a small collection of clipboards, each containing a lengthy questionnaire, the last page of which is a form that all first-time visitors must complete that establishes you as a brand-new member of Herban Element’s cannabis club. The woman invites you to be seated in one of two comfy chairs that are positioned in view of a flat-screen TV, which is typically tuned to a classic-rock music station. On a recent Tuesday morning, Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” was playing softly.

Once the woman verifies your doctor’s note and processes your application to join the collective, she’ll buzz you through a second door, behind which is a handsomely appointed, coffee shop-style bar crafted from wood. Shelves beneath the bar are stocked with knee braces, vitamins, herbal supplements, antiviral sprays and other homeopathic health products. A refrigerator in the corner displays various cannabis-laced baked goods, everything from peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches to muffins, brownies and cinnamon-streusel coffee cake. Stretching along the bar are gallon-size jars full of every imaginable strain of cannabis.

More expensive strains—priced not because of superior quality, but because they take longer to grow, the woman is careful to point out—are on view in a large cabinet. There’s an antique gasoline pump in one corner and a couple of framed marijuana-themed posters, one of which asks, “God Made Grass, Man Made Booze: Who do you trust?”

The only thing that seems out of place is the message on the chalkboard behind the bar that asks all visitors to register to vote and, if they are a resident of Costa Mesa, to pull the lever for City Council candidate Sue Lester. What’s strange about that is Sue Lester is the brunette who just buzzed you in, the woman who owns Herban Elements, which, in the minds of Costa Mesa city officials, is nothing short of a criminal enterprise.

If she wins her race to join the Costa Mesa City Council on Nov. 2, Lester will become the first public office-holder in Orange County history whose professional occupation happens to be illegal under federal law. She’ll also be in the unique position of helping to run a city government that has been trying to force her out of business.

Lester has been subjected to numerous fines and unwanted visits by police and code-enforcement officers who have made clear they intend to shut her down. She helped organize the county’s first coalition of cannabis-club owners, which consists of eight Costa Mesa-based marijuana collectives that have already sued the city in an effort to remain in business. Also fighting on her behalf is a lobbyist who has convinced other cities in California to drop their prohibitions on cannabis clubs and embrace them as legitimate members of the business community—not to mention reliable sources of badly needed revenue.

Despite her soft voice and subdued personality, Lester is no pushover. That she’s not only successfully fought off the city, but has also set her sights on the seat of power itself is a testament to her tenacity.

“I never thought I’d be running for public office,” Lester reflects. “But I don’t agree with a lot of the things the city is doing or the methods they are using. I can sit here and do nothing and hope somebody else changes things, or I can raise my hand and do what I can for what I think is right.”

*     *     *

About an hour into my interview with her, a string of patients begins entering Herban Elements. Lester smilingly greets each customer by name. Unlike some Southern California dispensaries that see up to 200 patients per day, Lester says her club averages about 25 daily visits and has no more than 1,000 members. “Our system is programmed to lock out new members when we reach maximum capacity,” she explains.

A year after forming as a nonprofit, Herban Elements continues to operate at a deficit, Lester says, because member donations are both paying for operating expenses and repaying the initial loan used to finance the brick-and-mortar facility. The club makes monthly charitable donations with any leftover revenue; recipients so far have included the American Cancer Society, Costa Mesa Senior Center, Costa Mesa Foundation for Parks and Recreation, AIDS Foundation OC, the Arthritis Foundation and Orange Coast College’s culinary program.

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