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'

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.”

In mid-2009, Lester drove to Costa Mesa City Hall, walked upstairs to the planning department, and applied for a city business license to sell natural remedies, health supplies and herbal supplements. She knew full well that the city had drafted an ordinance four years earlier prohibiting medical-marijuana dispensaries from operating there.

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

“I didn’t write ‘medical marijuana’ out on my application because I was told by a number of people—attorneys, people who work for cities—that cities don’t want a gigantic influx of these types of businesses, which I understand,” Lester says. “I wrote herbal supplements, vitamins and joint supports, which is all stuff we have here. And so if you call the city and ask them if they’ve issued any permits or business licenses for medical marijuana, they can say ‘no’ because they haven’t. They told me that by doing that, you are helping the city as well as helping yourself.”

At the time, only two other dispensaries operated in Costa Mesa: One of them was Med Mar, which now shares the same office building as Herban Elements. The other was Doc’s, which was located on Newport Boulevard at the end of the 55 freeway. But in the few months between obtaining her license and renovating the space that would become Herban Elements, more than a dozen other collectives had sprouted up throughout Costa Mesa. According to the city, none of these businesses is operating legally. Claire Flynn, a principal planner with Costa Mesa, says, “We have not allowed business licenses to be approved for any business that represents itself as a medical-marijuana dispensary. It’s considered a prohibited use.” The sudden influx led to a rapid deterioration of relations between cannabis clubs and city government and thrust Lester into her historic bid for public office.

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The first time the cops came to Herban Elements was on March 4, 2010, exactly a month after police carried out their first major dispensary raid of the year against West Coast Wellness, arresting three men for suspicion of marijuana sales. Lester knew about the raid but wasn’t worried about her club because she felt confident she was operating well within state law. Lester was in her car, about to run an errand, when several police cruisers and city code-enforcement vehicles pulled into the parking lot. “I was in the driveway,” she recalls. “I drove around the block and came back, and they were all standing in the parking lot. I walked up and said good morning to everybody and went back upstairs.” She saw the cops knock on the door of Med Mar, the other collective in her building. Then they knocked on her door. “They said they were here to issue me a cease-and-desist order,” she says. “I asked why, and they said I was operating without a valid business license.”

When Lester pointed at the business license on her wall, the officers accused her of lying on her application form by not specifying she would be providing medical marijuana. “I told them I wasn’t a criminal and that other than an occasional parking ticket, I’ve never broken any law. They said if they came back and I was still operating, they would cite me.”

Lieutenant Mark Manley, a spokesman for the Costa Mesa Police Department, says officers heard through code enforcement that a number of medical-marijuana dispensaries were attempting to open in the city. “As we looked into it, information came to our attention that at some dispensaries, there were criminal sales of marijuana going on above and beyond the intent of the Compassionate Use Act.” Manley says. “Through investigation, we were able to discern that was the case, and we did criminal filings on both of them.”

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