In December of 2017, Sweet Leaf, Colorado’s largest dispensary chain, was raided by Denver PD after a year-long undercover investigation into the business. Law enforcement shut down all locations for what the state refers to as “looping,” or selling more than the “legal” amount of cannabis to a customer at one time. Two years after the raid, the case came to a head today: Sweet Leaf’s owners Matthew Aiken, Christian Johnson, and Anthony Sauro pleaded guilty to violating the Colorado Organized Crime Control Act (COCCA)—a law that focuses on racketeering and illegal distribution of cannabis.
Under a plea agreement with the Denver District Attorney, the men will serve one year in prison, face a year of parole, and one year of probation for charges under COCCA. They will also have a felony on their records for marijuana distribution. And, according to reports, Aiken, Johnson, and Sauro are also required to hand over the assets of their other businesses, Dynamic Growth LLC and AJS Holdings. They’re also required to pay fines of $125,000 each for not filing tax returns and participating in organized crime.
“It’s absolutely terrible what’s happening to these men,” says Nichole West, Sweet Leaf’s former vice president, who served 30-days in jail last December along with retail operations manager Ashley Goldstein, as they both pled guilty for felony marijuana distribution charges. “They are hardworking guys who genuinely care about their team and community. I hope this can serve as a learning moment for the entire industry to push for federal legalization and that at the very least Colorado cannabis professionals demand change on the currently still grey regulation surrounding ‘transactions’ in the state of Colorado.”
The Sweet Leaf saga is deep for a number of reasons, one of which being that it’s the first legal, white collar cannabis case in history. Another being proof that weed still isn’t actually legal. But on its face, the story chronicles a nightmarish tale of the complexities of writing and comprehending brand new law—and the integration of a once-black-market-industry into a legally accepted landscape. It also paints a picture of what (still) happens when cannabis businesses are targeted by law enforcement.
Prior to the Sweet Leaf raid, the cannabis law in Colorado stated that a “Retail Marijuana Store and its employees are prohibited from selling more than one ounce of retail marijuana flower or its equivalent in Retail Marijuana Concentrate or Retail Marijuana Product during a single sales transaction to a consumer.”
The store is said to have sold multiple ounces to customers within a day in separate transactions between 2016-2017. Under the previous iteration of the law, doing this isn’t technically illegal—and it’s likely how a number of dispensaries were also doing business in Colorado.
According to reports, a memo was sent out by Colorado’s Marijuana Enforcement Division (MED) in May of 2017, clarifying that only one-ounce of cannabis can be sold to a person in a single transaction within a business day. West and former MED compliance officer Renee Rayton (who was indicted for allegedly participating in an unrelated cannabis trafficking ring) communicated about the confusion of the law. Rayton clarified her “uppers” stated that doing more than one transaction with a person is against state law.
After the Sweet Leaf raids and arrests—in which 18 budtenders were arrested, but the charges have since been dropped—Colorado’s cannabis law changed on Jan. 1, 2018, to specifically define a transaction. Now it states that a “Retail Marijuana Store and its employees are prohibited from transferring more than one ounce of Retail Marijuana flower or its equivalent in Retail Marijuana Concentrate or Retail Marijuana Product in a single transaction to a consumer. A single transaction includes multiple transfers to the same consumer during the same business day where the Retail Marijuana Store employee knows or reasonably should know that such transfer would result in that consumer possessing more than one ounce of marijuana.”
No mercy was spared on the dispensary owners. Today, prosecutors said Aiken, Johnson, and Sauro knew that Sweet Leaf employees allowed customers to make multiple purchases on the same day, exceeding the state’s one-ounce possession limit. According to local reports, investigators believe Sweet Leaf was responsible for almost 2.5 tons of illegal cannabis entering the black market.
According to a statement by Denver DA Beth McCann, law enforcement was tipped off by a watchful citizen who observed the same people making multiple purchases from one Sweet Leaf dispensary in a day. “The vast majority of Denver’s marijuana industry businesses and owners are reputable and responsible and strive to obey our marijuana laws,” she said in a statement. “However, Sweet Leaf is an exception. My office will prosecute those who do not comply with our marijuana laws.”
The takeaway? Cannabis prohibition is still alive and thriving—even in the states where legal pot laws are in place. Alas, Aiken, Johnson, and Sauro are banned from working in Colorado’s cannabis industry for the next 15 years, as a result.
Edited: headline was changed from ‘Convicted’ to ‘Plead Guilty to Drug Charges, Serve Year in Jail’