Federal authorities raided VIP Cannabis in Denver on Nov. 21, 2013. (Hyoung Chang, Denver Post file photo)

Feds raid Denver-area marijuana dispensaries, grow operations, 2 homes

Six weeks before the nation’s first retail marijuana shops open in Colorado, federal authorities on Thursday raided more than a dozen Denver metro area marijuana facilities and two homes.

In the largest federal raid on Colorado marijuana businesses since medical marijuana became legal, federal law enforcement agents with an assist from local police officers executed search and seizure warrants at multiple dispensaries and cultivation facilities — at least a dozen in Denver alone.

Agents also raided two private residences, according to sources speaking to The Denver Post on condition of anonymity.

Federal officials wouldn’t give specific reasons for the raids, other than to say one of eight federal concerns around marijuana have potentially been violated. Those concerns include trafficking marijuana outside of states where it has been legalized and money laundering.

A search warrant obtained by The Post identifies 10 “target subjects” associated with the raids.

James “Skip” Wollrab, an attorney for one of the targets, said his client did nothing wrong. He said he followed state regulations closely.

“They took $1 million worth of plants from his facility,” said Wollrab, who represents Laszlo Bagi, owner of Swiss Medical in Boulder. “They didn’t leave any instructions, saying don’t replant. There was no court order of cease and desist. No explanation.”

Outside Swiss Medical, agents left a pile of seized marijuana stacked in the snow like Christmas trees until a front-end loader scooped it up and a truck hauled it away.

Wollrab said the agents were also raiding Bagi’s grow facilities in Commerce City and the effect will likely bankrupt his client.

Another raid targeted one of the largest dispensaries in the state — VIP Cannabis at 2949 W. Alameda Ave. in Denver. Broken glass from a shattered front window littered the parking lot while masked agents hauled boxes of evidence into a U-Haul truck. Police turned customers away. The dispensary’s website said it would be closed on Thursday and Friday.

The president of VIP, which was formed in 2009, is identified in state records as Carlos Solano. Luis F. Uribe is identified as the vice president. Neither could be reached for comment Thursday.

Both men are identified as “target subjects” in the search warrant, which gave authorities the go-ahead to seize everything from pot plants and cash to financial records, safes and computer flash drives.

Also named in the search warrant were Gerardo Uribe-Christancho, David Furtado, Juan Guardarrama, Carlos Solano-Bocanegro, Jared Bringhurst, Felix Perez, John Frank Esmeral and Joseph Tavares.

Efforts to reach them for comment Thursday were not successful.

State business records tie Bringhurst to a grow warehouse at 4242 Elizabeth Street in Denver that was raided Thursday, according to a man at the property who declined to be identified. The grow is associated with a dispensary called Golden Goat Wellness in Denver, records show. Bringhurst is identified as the dispensary’s registered agent.

No arrests were made in the raids, said Jeff Dorschner, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Justice in Denver. Dorschner said the raids were being conducted by the Drug Enforcement Administration, Internal Revenue Service criminal investigations unit, the Denver Police Department and state and local law enforcement.

“Although we cannot at this time discuss the substance of this pending investigation, the operation under way today comports with the Department’s recent guidance regarding marijuana enforcement matters,” Dorschner said in his e-mailed statement to The Post.

“While the investigation is ongoing, there are strong indications that more than one of the eight federal prosecution priorities identified in the Department of Justice’s August guidance memo are potentially implicated,” he said in a later statement.

On Aug. 29, the U.S. Justice Department issued a memo to federal prosecutors revealing the federal government wouldn’t stand in the way of marijuana legalization. The memo warned the federal government would still “aggressively enforce” eight areas of concern surrounding the drug:

• Preventing distribution to minors;

• Preventing revenue from marijuana sales from going to criminal enterprises, gangs, and cartels;

• Preventing diversion of marijuana from states where it is legal to other states;

• Preventing state-authorized marijuana activity from being used as a cover or pretext for the trafficking of other illegal drugs or other illegal activity;

• Preventing violence and the use of firearms in the cultivation and distribution of marijuana

• Preventing drugged driving and the exacerbation of other adverse public health consequences associated with marijuana use;

• Preventing the growing of marijuana on public lands and the attendant public safety and environmental dangers posed by marijuana production on public lands;

• Preventing marijuana possession on federal property.

It is unclear what areas are being investigated by federal authorities in Thursday’s operation.

In March, Kevin Merrill, assistant special agent in charge of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Denver field division, told The Post his investigators were aware of many instances of operators with pending license applications who would not qualify because of criminal records, failure to meet residence requirements or because they have registered the business in another name while they are in control.

At the time, he declined to elaborate, citing ongoing investigations.

Aaron Smith, the executive director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, noted that many of the raids took place at locations where a number of different medical-marijuana businesses shared space. It is not uncommon, for instance, for multiple dispensaries to share space in a single cultivation warehouse.

In that situation, Smith said, federal authorities would be likely to seize all the marijuana they come across in the facility, whether the business it belonged to was the target of the investigation or not.

“We know the policy of law enforcement would be to take everything at a certain facility, regardless of whose property it was,” Smith said.

That’s what happened in 2011, when federal authorities raided a north Denver dispensary called Cherry Top Farms after following a truck to the business while investigating an illegal cultivation warehouse. Four people were charged in connection with the warehouse, but no one at Cherry Top Farms was ever accused of wrongdoing. Nonetheless, federal agents seized 2,500 marijuana plants from the business as contraband.

Mike Elliott, head of the Medical Marijuana Industry Group, which represents some of Colorado’s larger industry players, said the organization has always supported a robust and comprehensive regulatory framework and strict enforcement.

“Really, I see enforcement actions happening as a sign our industry is maturing and this program is working,” Elliott said.

Elliott added that details on the enforcement actions are not available and “it’s important to remember people are innocent until proven guilty.”

Mason Tvert of the Marijuana Policy Project, who pushed for legalization, said he doesn’t know what inspired the raids.

“The Justice Department said it would respect states’ rights to regulate marijuana, and that it would not go after businesses as long as they are complying with state laws,” he said in a statement.

“We hope they are sticking to their word and not interfering with any state-regulated, law-abiding businesses. … If a business is suspected of violating state laws, they will likely face increased scrutiny, and if they are found to be in violation, they will likely face consequences. That is how our society treats alcohol, and that is how we expect to see marijuana treated.”

Tom Gorman, director of the Rocky Mountain High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, a federal program that works with law-enforcement agencies to reduce drug trafficking and production, said he was glad to see the raid. Gorman’s program was not involved in the investigation or Thursday’s enforcement actions, he said.

Gorman said he does not think the timing is connected to the recent guidance to Colorado and Washington state from the DOJ, or to Colorado’s looming transition to recreational marijuana retail centers.

Typically, he said, such investigations last 18 months or longer and it just takes that long to gather information for search and seizure warrants.

“I have said it before and I’ll say it again — you cannot regulate this illegal industry,” Gorman said. “You can’t any time you talk about money and profits, and dealing with a customer base and selling product. There are too many loopholes, too many ways to get around it. You just can’t do it ….

“It looks likes we are becoming a stoner state.”

Andy Williams, owner of Medicine Man dispensary in Denver and a board member with the Medical Marijuana Industry Group, said he welcomed raids on businesses breaking the rules and doubts the federal government would target business indiscriminately.

“I want the bad actors gone, quite honestly,” he said.

Williams said he is confident the recreational marijuana industry will be well-regulated now that Colorado voters have approved taxes that will go to oversight.

“When the revenue starts rolling in, (state officials) are going to be able to hire the people necessary to make sure they are doing their due diligence,” he said. “I think the federal government is going to recognize that.”

VIP Cannabis on West Alameda Avenue is a Type 3 dispensary, meaning it has more than 500 patients and is the largest classification under state regulations. Fewer than 20 Type 3 dispensaries operate in Colorado.

Federal agents wore dental masks, presumably to protect themselves from the fumes, as they carried boxes from the store.

Workers boarded up windows that officers had broken during the raid and bolted shut the doors. A Denver police officer turned away customers who continued to trickle past, unaware of the police activity.

Among them was Ut Cobbin, who had been a customer for about five months.

“They were very fair, treated me like a loyal customer,” Cobbin said, flashing his medical marijuana card. He said frequent customers could earn points for discounts and valued customers were given a free “eighth” of pot each month.

Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle said his department also was asked to provide security while the DEA served a warrant at a dispensary in Nederland. A member of the Boulder County Drug Task Force said the dispensary raided was Grateful Meds.

Colorado’s regulatory framework as well as Denver’s framework has been criticized in recent audits.

The state audit said regulators charged with watching over Colorado’s medical marijuana industry fell short on everything from tracking inventory and managing their budget to keeping potential bad actors out of the business.

Denver’s audit found serious problems with how the city licenses, tracks and manages the booming medical marijuana industry in the city.

Jeremy P. Meyer: 303-954-1367, jpmeyer@denverpost.com or twitter.com/jpmeyerdpost

Boulder Daily Camera reporter Mitchell Byars and Denver Post reporter Sadie Gurman contributed to this report.

This story was first published on DenverPost.com