Two former Sweet Leaf executives are now doing time in Denver County Jail, the result of their roles in the dispensary chain's looping scandal that resulted in all eleven of the company's Colorado dispensaries being closed by law enforcement officials and the state Marijuana Enforcement Division.
Former Sweet Leaf vice president Nichole West and retail operations manager Ashley Goldstein both pleaded guilty to felony drug charges and will each serve thirty days in jail, according to the Denver District Attorney's Office. The women were both charged by the DA on Tuesday, November 27, with one count of distribution of four to twelve ounces of marijuana or marijuana concentrate, a class 4 drug felony; Goldstein also pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor marijuana distribution charge.
While the legal battles faced by Sweet Leaf's ownership group and former budtenders have been well-documented, Goldstein and West are the first employees to be sentenced in connection with the case.
A majority of the dispensary chain's stores were raided in December 2017 by the Denver Police Department, after a yearlong investigation into the company for allegedly selling more than one ounce of marijuana to the same recreational customers on the same day, a tactic known as "looping" that the state Marijuana Enforcement Division charged was illegal at the time. Sweet Leaf attorneys argue that the one-ounce limit only applied to each transaction rather than daily purchases.
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At least eighteen budtenders were arrested in connection with the looping raids, but all of their charges were eventually dropped. So far, although no charges have been filed against Sweet Leaf owners Anthony Suaro, Christian Johnson and Matthew Aiken, the DA has confirmed that there was a grand jury investigation into the trio's involvement with Sweet Leaf. The three men were also heavily fined by the MED and cannot work for or have ownership in a Colorado marijuana businesses for fifteen years.
West's name came up several times as a compliance executive for Sweet Leaf during license hearings between the City of Denver and the company as the city moved to revoke the company's business licenses. In a 2016 email exchange obtained by Westword, West asked former MED compliance officer Renee Rayton — who was indicted in 2017 for her alleged participation in an unrelated marijuana trafficking ring — 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."
After receiving that reply, Sweet Leaf began handing out leaflets to customers that essentially put the onus on the buyer for going past the one-ounce limit, while noting that the company could refuse service if employees felt "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."
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After the raids last December and subsequent budtender arrests, Goldstein and West set up a GoFundMe page to raise money for the budtenders' legal fees. It reached slightly over $2,000 of its $15,000 goal, but Sweet Leaf ended up reimbursing the majority of budtenders for their attorney costs.
Marijuana attorney Rob Corry, who defended a handful of Sweet Leaf's budtenders and currently represents co-owner Suaro, says that West's sentence was "unfortunate," and calls her a "hard-working contributor to the community."
"It is unfortunate indeed that a state-investigated, state-approved and state-licensed business professional will be warehoused in the crowded Denver Jail at taxpayer expense, taking up space better occupied by actual criminals who harm people," he says. "It is even worse that this hard-working contributor to the community will be saddled with a felony conviction that may impact this creative executive's ability to add to the economy in the future."
The DA's office could not comment on anything outside of the duration of the women's sentences, according to communications director Ken Lane. Sweet Leaf did not return requests for comment.