Members of Denver's cannabis community are holding fundraisers to support Sweet Leaf employees affected by the indefinite shutdown of Sweet Leaf outposts by the Denver Police Department, state Marijuana Enforcement Division and other agencies on December 14. All ten of Sweet Leaf's metro dispensaries are currently closed, and the company's 26 cultivation, processing and dispensary licenses have been suspended by the City of Denver owing to allegations of illegal cannabis sales taking place across multiple Sweet Leaf locations.The license for its Thornton location, once expected to open in early 2018, is under review by the City of Thornton, but no decision has been made, according to city communications director Todd Barnes.
Thirteen of Sweet Leaf's employees have been arrested so far in connection with the investigation, according to the DPD; all of them were working as lower-level staff during the times of the alleged illegal sales. Meanwhile, hundreds of Sweet Leaf's Colorado employees are now out of work, pending a hearing date for the company with the Denver Department of Excise and Licenses. The thirteen who were arrested are now out of jail; Denver District Attorney's Office communications director Ken Lane says that he expects charges to be filed after this week.
While there have been no additional arrests, Lane notes that there are still nine outstanding warrants for individuals connected to the investigation.
With Sweet Leaf jobs in limbo, individuals both inside and outside the company are taking action. Mitch Mendez, an assistant manager at Golden Meds Peoria dispensary, has helped organize a fundraiser for Sweet Leaf employees, raising money for food, clothing, household essentials and holiday gifts for the families of staffers.
"The guys behind the scene – the trimmers, the growers – they got nothing to do with what's going on on the retail," Mendez says. "These other employees who have been laid off, they're going to need assistance somehow — and all of this came right before the holidays." Although he says he hopes the event will inspire Sweet Leaf management to be more proactive with communication and aid to employees, Mendez adds that he's not trying to step on any toes; he just wants to make sure those in the cannabis community have gifts on Christmas morning and rent paid by January 1.
Mendez contacted iPuff Vape owner Julia Staley about hosting the event, and local cannabis activist Melanie Rose Rodgers for help organizing. Since joining forces, the team has refined the fundraiser's goal and started discussions with business owners and temp agencies in the cannabis industry to find work for Sweet Leaf employees.
"We aren't speaking on behalf of Sweet Leaf with this; they have so much going on right now. This event is about us as a community and individuals trying to help," Rodgers explains. "The cannabis community is super-uneasy about everything at the moment.... There are thirteen young budtenders and staff with felony charges and over 350 employees not working, plus banking issues and paychecks not available four days before Christmas."
The fundraiser will be held from 2 to 8 p.m. on Saturday, December 23, at iPuff Vape, 3405 Downing Street, and should be just the first of multiple events benefiting Sweet Leaf employees. "We want them to know we're here as a community resource, and to possibly help with job assistance," Rodgers says. "There's no union group around to help these people out."
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A crowdfunding campaign on GoFundMe is raising money for the legal fees of the thirteen employees arrested on December 14. The campaign, started by former Sweet Leaf vice president Nichole West, is titled "Legal Fees for Innocent Budtenders." According to the campaign's web page, West's fundraiser was started on behalf of Ashley Goldstein, who currently works for Sweet Leaf as a store manager, according to her Linkedin account. Neither Goldstein nor West responded to requests for comment, but the GoFundMe page clearly describes the intent of the $15,000 they hope to raise:
The employees who were following a law that was poorly written are now facing criminal charges, and we as an industry and humans need to help them! Please donate anything you can to help these people who went to jail just weeks before Christmas.
All funds will go to handle legal bills directly and will be handled by the opperations manager of SL.
Arrested for a crime known as looping, the budtenders are accused of selling the maximum amount of cannabis allowed to customers — one ounce for recreational and two ounces for medical — and then allowing customers to leave the dispensary, return and buy more cannabis. Although there is a state tracking system in place for medical patients, there is none for retail purchases. Sweet Leaf officials have disputed the way the law is interpreted, arguing that the one-ounce limit applies to each transaction, and not each day.
Sweet Leaf has not responded to requests for comment since issuing a statement December 14 in regard to the DPD investigation. AJS Holdings, the investment firm listed with the MED as the owner of three Sweet Leaf dispensary licenses, has not responded to requests for comment.