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Officials: Hoppz' Cropz arrests underscore problems with Colorado's legalized marijuana system

July 25, 2017 Updated: July 25, 2017 at 5:39 pm
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District Attorney Dan May stands at the podium at Colorado Springs Police Department Gold Hill Division on Tuesday, July 25, 2017 in Colorado Springs to contribute to the announcement of an alleged criminal enterprise that illegally distributed nearly 200 pounds of marijuana through the Hoppz' Cropz storefronts in Colorado Springs and indicted 13 individuals. (Photo by Dougal Brownlie, The Gazette).

A Colorado Springs cannabis accessory and gift shop has been shuttered after 13 employees, including the owners, were indicted for illegally distributing about 200 pounds of marijuana and violating the state Organized Crime Control Act.

Hoppz' Cropz would sell customers cigarette lighters "worth a few cents" for $15 and in turn give them 1 gram of marijuana, worth about $15, for "free," said Colorado Attorney General Cynthia Coffman.

Hoppz' Cropz owners Joseph Hopper, Dara Wheatley, Joseph Sergio Crivici and Adam Donaldson, along with nine employees, are accused of buying medical marijuana from licensed facilities and reselling it for profit under the guise of a "giveaway" with the purchase of other merchandise, according to a multi-jurisdictional announcement Tuesday.

The owners also are accused of tax evasion and failing to report nearly $500,000 in retail sales, according to Coffman's office.

District Attorney Dan May listed a host of problems caused by legalized marijuana in Colorado, including its effects on water supplies, health workers and, especially, law enforcement, which must conduct intensive investigations and uphold sometimes hazy laws.

May called marijuana "the gateway drug to homicide in our community and across our state," citing information released earlier this year by the Colorado Springs Police Department, which claimed "a marijuana nexus" in at least 11 of the 59 homicides reported over the past three years: two of 29 homicides in 2015, eight of 22 homicides in 2016 and at least one so far in 2017.

"That's not somebody just using marijuana, that's somebody being murdered over a legal marijuana grow in their house, murdered over an illegal marijuana grow in their house," May said.

Jason Warf, executive director of the Southern Colorado Cannabis Council, called May's comment "nonsense."

Warf said he worries that state and local officials might be trying to turn public opinion against legalized marijuana by tying violent crime to the drug without evidence.

City Council President Richard Skorman also questioned May's statement, saying none of the officials who have presented on marijuana during council meetings has mentioned a connection to homicides.

Some of the crimes related to marijuana - larceny and robbery - also apply to other items of value, Skorman said. "You could say diamond rings are the gateway to murder if you're talking about the value of it."

Coffman characterized May's concerns as the price of Colorado being one of the first states to legalize recreational marijuana sales. She said Colorado's successes and failures should help other states that consider legalization.

As for the arrests at Hoppz' Cropz, she said, "These collaborative efforts to conduct investigations and prosecute perpetrators are the key to stopping the illegal sale of marijuana in our state."

The shop's four owners and employees Derrick Bernard, Nathan Bernheisel, Victoria Fernandez, Marcee Smith, Alejandra Gonzalez, Raylene Rubio, Nicole Sandoval, Ashley Hefner and Melissa Colmus were indicted on charges of violating the Colorado Organized Crime Control Act, money laundering, tax evasion, attempting to influence a public servant, and possession with intent to manufacture or distribute marijuana, among other charges.

The cases will be prosecuted in Denver District Court.

Hoppz' Cropz storefronts at 2402 E. Boulder St. and 2549 Delta Drive are listed online as "permanently closed."

Despite police and prosecutors' concerns about Colorado's marijuana laws, a recent Gazette check found that a majority of City Council members - six of nine - support having a ballot measure eventually ask whether to allow recreational marijuana sales within city limits.

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Contact Kaitlin Durbin: 636-0362

Twitter: @njKaitlinDurbin

Facebook: Kaitlin Durbin

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