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'

Jeff Byrne, OCDA’s 36-year-old president and a Costa Mesa resident since birth, has been a cannabis grower since November 1996, when California’s Compassionate Use Act became law. “I foolishly thought as an impressionable college student that laws were made in the ballot box, only to find out 14 years later they are actually made in the courtroom,” he says. “So earlier this year, when Costa Mesa felt there were too many dispensaries and began to raid a couple of places, eight of us formed a group to get active with lawsuits and fund-raisers, to do anything we can to change the misconceptions about what we do.”

The coalition’s first official act was to sue Costa Mesa. To do so, it hired Santa Ana-based attorney Christopher Glew, who in April filed a lawsuit in Orange County Superior Court arguing the city’s 2005 ban on dispensaries illegally pre-empted state law. The lawsuit also demanded that the city cease all raids or other enforcement actions against the two dispensaries named in the lawsuit, including Herban Elements. “In a nutshell, we are saying state law prevents the city from legislating in the area of medical marijuana, and there is no room for the city to change or modify that without a voter initiative,” Glew says. A hearing on the lawsuit is scheduled for later this month.

In August, OCDA hired its own lobbying firm, Chico, California-based Capitol Solutions, whose director, Max Del Real, had already successfully lobbied Sacramento to reverse course on medical marijuana. “Four months ago, Sacramento was not a friend of medical cannabis,” Del Real says. “The city had 39 dispensaries in operation without a permit. They were looking at going to court to close them down. But through dialogue and workshops, Sacramento had a turnaround. These businesses bring in money; patients go to Sacramento, and while they are getting their medicine, they shop, they stay. The city saw a chance to bring in revenue through special-use permits, like those for liquor stores and cigarette stores.”

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

For the past two months, Del Real has been lobbying Costa Mesa officials to drop their war on medical marijuana and follow Sacramento’s lead. He says he’s met privately with Mansoor and Councilman Gary Monahan. Neither Mansoor nor Monahan would comment for this story because of the litigation with Herban Elements.

“My clients are prepared to pay for permits and pay taxes,” Del Real says. “We are employing citizens and creating jobs, and in this economy, it’s hard to turn away from that. Each city is writing its own future, and Costa Mesa has a chance to come out ahead. If Costa Mesa opens the door, other cities will follow.”

*     *     *

Perhaps the true test of whether Costa Mesa is ready to reverse its crackdown on medical marijuana will be Lester’s campaign for City Council. Ironically, despite the historic nature of her campaign, voters who don’t know Lester’s status as a cannabis-club owner won’t find out when they visit the voting booth. On Aug. 16, City Clerk Julie Folcik sent Lester a letter explaining that the city would not allow her ballot designation to list her occupation as “nonprofit director” because Herban Elements is “operating a medical-marijuana dispensary with the City of Costa Mesa in violation of federal and local law.”

Although she’s yet to campaign in full force, Lester already has a website ( and a Facebook page and has begun scheduling fund-raising events, including an Oct. 2 concert at the Galaxy Concert Theatre. She’ll be walking precincts, hosting neighborhood fund-raisers and taking part in candidate forums throughout the month. Lester is running against four other candidates: Jim Righeimer, a longtime Republican Party operative; Mayor Pro Tem Wendy Leece; Chad Petschl, a salesman; and Chris McEvoy, an educator. Because there are two open seats on the council (Mansoor is termed out and is running for the state assembly), the two candidates who receive the most votes will win.

Lester recently sought the endorsement of the Costa Mesa Police Officers Association. “I was very honest with them about my views and what drives my candidacy,” she says. Although the association has yet to endorse any candidates and didn’t return a telephone call seeking comment, Lester says her meeting with the police went better than she expected.

“After the meeting, several officers came up and told me they are residents of the city, and when I get my campaign up and running and get my signs, they would be proud to put one on their lawn. It was a huge compliment to me,” she says. “I’ve never had a problem with the police. They’re just answering to people who want things done their way. It’s all good. I’m not going to be intimidated by them. I’m not backing down.”

« Previous Page