*This article was altered on Oct. 6, 2010.
There’s no marijuana-leaf sign in front of Herban Elements, no ubiquitous green cross, the most-common motif associated with California’s medical-marijuana dispensaries. Instead, one of Costa Mesa’s most-popular cannabis clubs is tucked inside a two-story stucco office building along Harbor Boulevard, just up the street from the police department. Walking down the street or driving by in traffic, you wouldn’t even know it was there.
Getting inside isn’t easy. You must be 21 or older and carry a valid California driver’s license. Next, you’ll need a doctor’s note allowing you to smoke cannabis under the state’s so-called “Compassionate Use Act,” which since November 1996 has allowed California residents to smoke and possess marijuana for medicinal reasons. If you’ve brought those two items with you, a friendly, petite brunette behind a glass cashier’s window will buzz you through a locked door into Herban Element’s small lobby.
At this point, the woman who let you in the door is still secured behind yet another cashier’s window accessible from the lobby side of the locked door. Beneath this window is a small collection of clipboards, each containing a lengthy questionnaire, the last page of which is a form that all first-time visitors must complete that establishes you as a brand-new member of Herban Element’s cannabis club. The woman invites you to be seated in one of two comfy chairs that are positioned in view of a flat-screen TV, which is typically tuned to a classic-rock music station. On a recent Tuesday morning, Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir” was playing softly.
Once the woman verifies your doctor’s note and processes your application to join the collective, she’ll buzz you through a second door, behind which is a handsomely appointed, coffee shop-style bar crafted from wood. Shelves beneath the bar are stocked with knee braces, vitamins, herbal supplements, antiviral sprays and other homeopathic health products. A refrigerator in the corner displays various cannabis-laced baked goods, everything from peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches to muffins, brownies and cinnamon-streusel coffee cake. Stretching along the bar are gallon-size jars full of every imaginable strain of cannabis.
More expensive strains—priced not because of superior quality, but because they take longer to grow, the woman is careful to point out—are on view in a large cabinet. There’s an antique gasoline pump in one corner and a couple of framed marijuana-themed posters, one of which asks, “God Made Grass, Man Made Booze: Who do you trust?”
The only thing that seems out of place is the message on the chalkboard behind the bar that asks all visitors to register to vote and, if they are a resident of Costa Mesa, to pull the lever for City Council candidate Sue Lester. What’s strange about that is Sue Lester is the brunette who just buzzed you in, the woman who owns Herban Elements, which, in the minds of Costa Mesa city officials, is nothing short of a criminal enterprise.
If she wins her race to join the Costa Mesa City Council on Nov. 2, Lester will become the first public office-holder in Orange County history whose professional occupation happens to be illegal under federal law. She’ll also be in the unique position of helping to run a city government that has been trying to force her out of business.
Lester has been subjected to numerous fines and unwanted visits by police and code-enforcement officers who have made clear they intend to shut her down. She helped organize the county’s first coalition of cannabis-club owners, which consists of eight Costa Mesa-based marijuana collectives that have already sued the city in an effort to remain in business. Also fighting on her behalf is a lobbyist who has convinced other cities in California to drop their prohibitions on cannabis clubs and embrace them as legitimate members of the business community—not to mention reliable sources of badly needed revenue.
Despite her soft voice and subdued personality, Lester is no pushover. That she’s not only successfully fought off the city, but has also set her sights on the seat of power itself is a testament to her tenacity.
“I never thought I’d be running for public office,” Lester reflects. “But I don’t agree with a lot of the things the city is doing or the methods they are using. I can sit here and do nothing and hope somebody else changes things, or I can raise my hand and do what I can for what I think is right.”
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About an hour into my interview with her, a string of patients begins entering Herban Elements. Lester smilingly greets each customer by name. Unlike some Southern California dispensaries that see up to 200 patients per day, Lester says her club averages about 25 daily visits and has no more than 1,000 members. “Our system is programmed to lock out new members when we reach maximum capacity,” she explains.
A year after forming as a nonprofit, Herban Elements continues to operate at a deficit, Lester says, because member donations are both paying for operating expenses and repaying the initial loan used to finance the brick-and-mortar facility. The club makes monthly charitable donations with any leftover revenue; recipients so far have included the American Cancer Society, Costa Mesa Senior Center, Costa Mesa Foundation for Parks and Recreation, AIDS Foundation OC, the Arthritis Foundation and Orange Coast College’s culinary program.
Unlike most other cannabis collectives, there is no menu on the club’s website (www.herbanelements.com). “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.
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.”
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.
* * *
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.
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.”
* * *
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 (www.suelester2010.com) 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.”
Award-winning investigative journalist Nick Schou is managing editor of OC Weekly. He is the author of Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb (Nation Books 2006), which provided the basis for the 2014 Focus Features release starring Jeremy Renner and the L.A. Times-bestseller Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love’s Quest to bring Peace, Love and Acid to the World, (Thomas Dunne 2009). He is also the author of The Weed Runners (2013) and Spooked: How the CIA Manipulates the Media and Hoodwinks Hollywood (2016).