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'

Unlike most other cannabis collectives, there is no menu on the club’s website ( “There is no reason for anyone to see that kind of thing on the Internet,” she says. “Some kid can read about what you have and what you do, and we’re not trying to incite people who have no business being there to have information about our establishment.”

The first patient of the day is an elderly man with a plug in his throat that’s connected to a breathing tube.

“Would you like some water?” Lester asks.

You wouldn't know it from the sign, but Herban Elements is upstairs
John Gilhooley
You wouldn't know it from the sign, but Herban Elements is upstairs
Lester wants to make Costa Mesa clean for green
John Gilhooley
Lester wants to make Costa Mesa clean for green

The man has to touch the plug on his throat to speak. “I’d love some,” comes the raspy reply. He takes a sniff of one of Herban Element’s most popular pure indica strains, Stinky Pink, which sells for $16 per gram. (All of the cannabis available at Herban Elements is priced at anywhere from $12 to $16 per gram, or $35 to $60 per eighth.)

Next through the door are two young men. One of them, a tall, lanky guy with close-cropped hair and mirrored aviator sunglasses, says he used to find his marijuana at the now-shuttered Doc’s. “It was a shit hole,” he says. “Here, they know my name. They give me free water. They know customer service.”

His friend has a soul patch on his chin, several tattoos on his arm and a wary expression on his face. “I came all the way from Anaheim,” he says, explaining he’s recently been discharged from the military and is now attending college classes in Costa Mesa. “The main reason I come here,” he adds, “is they honor vets.”

It’s possible Lester’s insistence on giving discounts to veterans stems from her personal background. She’s a registered Republican who grew up in a military family—her father served in the U.S. Army in Korea shortly after the end of that war, and she boasts family members in “every branch of the service.” She also has a long history of administrative jobs in the private sector, mostly in human resources and employee relations, for a variety of retail and manufacturing companies she prefers not to mention by name.

After growing up and graduating from Ganesha High School in Pomona, just across the LA County line from Brea, where she was born in 1967, Lester took classes in administration of justice at Mount San Antonio College in Walnut, California, aiming to be a police officer. Because she planned to raise a family, however, Lester dropped the idea and ended up working for the next decade at the “national retailer best known for customer service” in a security-related capacity that required her to “reduce shrinkage” by making sure “everybody followed the rules and nobody took anything home with them they weren’t supposed to have.”

In 1999, after spending two years in Texas helping the retailer open southwestern regional outlets, she moved to Orange County and spent the next two years completing a culinary program at Orange Coast College while also working full-time as a pastry chef. From 2003 to 2008, Lester went back into corporate management, this time for a Compton-based manufacturing company for which she created a human-resources department that oversaw the company’s expansion into China, as well as a workforce that swelled from 22 to more than 500 employees. She lasted five years, until a series of illnesses and family deaths put her on a new path in life.

In 2008, her father, who had already been diagnosed with prostate cancer, suffered a heart attack and underwent heart bypass surgery. Her mom went to the hospital for knee and back operations, the latter to repair a degenerative spine condition that had caused severe pain. In the midst of all that, Lester’s grandmother, a great-uncle, an aunt and cousin all died from long-term illnesses.

Shortly before her grandmother died in January 2009, a friend of Lester’s suggested she offer her ailing relative an edible marijuana brownie. The doctor green-lit the proposal, so Lester—who had recently obtained her own doctor’s note to use medical marijuana to treat arthritis and joint pain, the latter caused by old sports injuries—brought a brownie to the hospital room. “She took a bite and spit it out,” Lester recalls. “I tasted it, and it tasted horrible, like dirt and plant matter with this sweet chocolate slathered on top of it.”

Because of Lester’s experience as a chef, she “started toying around with the idea that I can make things that taste better,” she says. (Lester, a state-certified chef, personally bakes all the edibles sold at Herban Elements and at a nearby restaurant run by a friend of hers.) Just a few weeks after her grandmother passed away, Lester began researching Senate Bill 420, which regulates cannabis clubs.

“The more I read, the more I realized that not everybody was operating within the law,” she says. “The first place I went to was in Hollywood, and it was in a really scary part of town where I had to park four blocks away and walk past prostitutes and pimps and crackheads to get there. They weren’t asking for the right information from patients or verifying them, and there were places where people were medicating on site, and it happened to have a lot of things besides cannabis, like cocaine. I realized not all these places were in accordance with the spirit of medical marijuana, which is about helping people with serious medical problems, as opposed to being in furtherance of somebody’s party.”

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