It's been over seven months since police officers raided eight Sweet Leaf dispensaries in Denver and Aurora for alleged illegal marijuana sales. The raids were the culmination of a yearlong Denver Police Department investigation into alleged looping of marijuana, or selling more pot to an individual than state law allows.
At least eighteen onetime Sweet Leaf employees, all budtenders, were arrested in connection with the raids — and nearly all of them, frustrated and exhausted by months of legal uncertainty, have accepted dismissal offers from the Denver District Attorney that will eliminate all charges after they perform 200 hours of community service and donate $100 to Mothers Against Drunk Driving within a year.
But Deann Miller, a 46-year-old mother of three, didn't accept the city's offer. Instead, she's expecting to go to trial next week, risking up to a year in jail and being labeled a felon if a jury finds her guilty of felony drug distribution for her alleged role in Sweet Leaf's looping case.
"I didn't do anything wrong. If I'm going to be in trouble, then I at least have to fight," Miller says. "I don't want my children or grandkids to think this is okay. I'm not a drug dealer, and you can't just let people label you one."
Miller says she was arrested last December while she was at the hospital, where her granddaughter was having open-heart surgery. "They said I sideswiped someone, and wanted me to come outside," she remembers. "Then they arrested me for felony drug distribution. Can you believe that?"
Unlike most of her former co-workers who were also charged, Miller says she doesn't harbor any ill will toward Sweet Leaf. According to Miller and other ex-budtenders, Sweet Leaf has reimbursed the majority of them for their legal fees. "If Sweet Leaf knew they were doing something wrong, they would've stepped in and stopped it," she adds.
Miller and a handful of other employees were caught selling one ounce of marijuana to undercover DPD officers multiple times in the same day, which violates a Colorado law banning the purchase of more than one ounce of retail marijuana in a single day. However, that law didn't technically take effect into 2018, while Miller and her former colleagues conducted the disputed sales in 2016 and 2017.
Although the law didn't change until 2018, the state Marijuana Enforcement Division sent out a memo to marijuana business-license owners in May 2017 explaining its interpretation of the language at the time: that customers couldn't buy more than one ounce per day, not per transaction. According to the Denver City Attorney's Office during Sweet Leaf's licensing hearing in April, this was furthered clarified for Sweet Leaf vice president Nichole West in a 2016 email from former MED compliance officer Renee Rayton, who was indicted in 2017 for her alleged participation in an unrelated marijuana trafficking ring.
In the email exchange, obtained by Westword, West asked the MED for clarification on the time frame of marijuana transactions, asking how much time must separate them. Rayton's response: "We are aware the statute says per transaction, which I (speaking for myself) take as a single sales transaction. According to 'higher-ups' at MED, if you do more than one transaction with an individual, you are sending them away with more than ONE OUNCE, which violates State Law of having more than one ounce on your person (even if that person has taken a transaction to their home or car). So...that is all the information I have regarding this rule."
West then passed along a picture of a leaflet that Sweet Leaf had started handing out to customers that essentially put the onus on the buyer for having more than the one-ounce limit while adding that it could refuse service if employees feel "like you are abusing the system." MED criminal investigator Kristin Moulton subsequently praised Sweet Leaf's handout, telling West that it was "nice to know that there are businesses making an extra effort to uphold the laws and regulations."
According to Miller's attorney, Rob Corry, this exchange is ambiguous at best and doesn't indicate that Sweet Leaf budtenders were knowingly breaking any law by selling to the same person. So for Miller's defense, he and his team are focusing on the MED and Denver law enforcement's actions instead of pointing fingers at Sweet Leaf.
"The offers the other budtenders took, it was a good offer. It was fair, middle ground, so that's why those people took it," Corry says of Miller. "But she's standing up for what's right here."
Corry says he finds it odd that Tim Twinning, whom he describes as "one of the city's best prosecutors," is taking the lead on relatively small marijuana distribution charges. "Doesn't the city have real crime to go after?" he asks. (The DPD and the DA's Office declined to comment on Miller's case or Sweet Leaf, citing open investigations.)
Unlike other budtenders who spoke with the DPD and Westword after their arrests, Miller says she didn't feel intimidated by management to sell to loopers. But, she adds, there were times when she would refuse to sell to customers because their "IDs didn't look right," after which a Sweet Leaf manager would take over and perform the sale.
Miller says she viewed her budtending gig as a job and nothing more. She abstained from networking and industry events while keeping a low profile at work. "I'm not like most of these kids who were arrested," she explains. "I have a family I need to get home to, so I don't have time for any of that stuff — and I definitely don't have enough time to work and perform 200 hours of community service." Miller would have accepted the DA's offer had it comprised a larger fine and less community service, but she wasn't prepared to compromise her time, she says.
Miller's MED worker badge is still valid, and she's currently working as a budtender at Seed & Smith, a north Denver dispensary. Her new employer is aware of her case, she says; her job status depends on the trial's outcome, since drug felons are barred from working for a licensed marijuana business in Colorado.
"I feel used. I feel like I did nothing wrong — like I was just doing my job," she says. "Now people recognize me on the street and talk about seeing my mug shot the DA put out. I can't find work in any other industry after this, and it took hundreds of applications just to get this job."
Miller's trial is slated to begin on August 6 and is set for three days — though Corry says he wouldn't be surprised if it goes longer.
No Sweet Leaf owners or managers have yet been charged in connection with the investigation, but all of the company's business licenses in Denver have been revoked by the Department of Excises and Licenses (Sweet Leaf plans to appeal that decision in district court), while its remaining dispensary licenses in Aurora, Federal Heights and Thornton were suspended by the MED last week. Sweet Leaf and its legal representatives could not be reached for comment on this story.
The only other budtender currently facing charges in Denver is Michael Pesavento, who was arrested outside the city months after the raids.