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'

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.

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

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.

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.”

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.”

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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.”

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