Sweet Leaf, the Denver-based dispensary chain that saw eight stores raided by the Denver Police Department and other law enforcement and regulatory authorities in December, will soon discover its fate with the City of Denver.
A city hearing officer will oversee a hearing with Sweet Leaf and the Denver Department of Excise and Licenses today, March 14, and Thursday, March 15, after which the officer will decide whether to restore or terminate all 26 of the company's cultivation, processing and dispensary licenses in Denver. The licenses have been suspended since law enforcement raided seven Sweet Leaf locations in Denver and one in Aurora on December 14, after a yearlong investigation into the dispensary chain on suspicions of looping, or selling unlawful amounts of cannabis to customers, according to the Denver District Attorney's Office.
Fifteen Sweet Leaf budtenders were arrested in connection with the raids, but none of the company's owners listed in a December suspension order from DEXL — Anthony Suaro, Christian Johnson and Matthew Aiken — have been arrested. While all fifteen of the budtenders are awaiting their days in court, the city is moving forward to decide whether Sweet Leaf can continue operating in Denver.
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Sweet Leaf has denied any criminal activity, pointing to the Colorado law that applies a one-ounce limit to recreational cannabis possession and transactions. Company executives and their attorneys have argued that the one-ounce limit applies to each purchase, not to each day, and that the law puts the onus on the customer, not the budtender, to obey the rules. (The company didn't respond to requests to comment on the upcoming hearing.)
The law was recently changed to make it clear that the one-ounce limit applies on a per-day basis, but that law didn't take effect until January 1, 2018; all of the allegedly illegal sales took place in 2016 and 2017. Last year, however, the state Marijuana Enforcement Division issued an official position on cannabis transactions stating that "sales that are structured as multiple, stand-alone transactions may be viewed by the division as an attempt to evade quantity limitations on the sale of retail marijuana, resulting in recommendation for administrative action."
The company's dispensaries in Aurora and Federal Heights reopened after temporarily shutting down in response to the raids, and its Thornton location is slated to open in the spring.
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Documents obtained by Westword show that at least one of the arrested budtenders, Natalie Betters, saw her felony distribution charges dropped on February 28, but she was then charged with felony possession with the intent to distribute as well as a misdemeanor possession charge. Betters's attorney, Robert Corry, confirms that the original charges were dropped against all six of his Sweet Leaf clients, then replaced with new charges.
According to the Denver District Attorney's office, all five original felony cases (Krystal Mauro, Stuart Walker, Natalie Betters, Leeanne Henley and Deann Miller) involved one charge of distribution of marijuana (more than four ounces/less than twelve ounces). That count in each of those cases was dismissed, and in all five causes, two new counts have been added: possession with intent to manufacture or distribute marijuana (more than four ounces/less than twelve ounces) and possession of marijuana (more than two ounces/not more than six ounces). As of March 2, Delaney, too, faces the same charges, the DA's office says.
Will Excise & Licenses, like the DA, also change its approach to the Sweet Leaf case? The department has been tight-lipped about the ongoing case, but we'll learn more when the hearing begins at 9 a.m. today in the DEXL hearing room in the Webb Building, 201 West Colfax Avenue.
Update: This story was updated at 11 a.m. to add new information from the Denver DA's office about the new charges filed against the Sweet Leaf budtenders.