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'

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.

“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.

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

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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.”

Manley says raids have only been carried out against West Coast Wellness and Doc’s to date, but investigations against other collectives continue. He drew a distinction between criminal probes and code-enforcement actions the police helped carry out against dispensaries such as Herban Elements that are simply suspected of operating outside the city’s municipal code. “It’s not an issue of whether medical marijuana is right or not, but whether these operations are allowed to exist in Costa Mesa, and none of them are,” he says.

“We’ll see what happens in November,” Manley adds. “The climate is changing, and the police department will change with it. Whatever comes down from the voters and City Hall, we’ll follow. There’s this belief that the police department is philosophically against medical marijuana, but that’s not true.”

A week later, on March 16, Costa Mesa Mayor Allan Mansoor met with a group of medical-marijuana activists who asked him to consider overturning the city’s 2005 ban on cannabis dispensaries. Even as that meeting took place, city cops raided the aforementioned Doc’s dispensary, confiscating a large amount of cannabis and charging owner Rick Allen Green with felony possession and sales of marijuana.

Within days of that debacle, Lester received an invitation to meet with a group of other cannabis-club operators in Costa Mesa who wanted to organize a coalition that would set basic standards for marijuana dispensaries—such as refusing membership to outfits that didn’t strictly follow California law—and combine their efforts to fight the city’s crackdown. Thus was born the Orange County Director’s Alliance, or OCDA, which happens to share its acronym with the Orange County district attorney’s office.

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