March 26, 2013

State: Marijuana supplier used pesticides, violated rules

By Michael Shepherd
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA  —   A state investigation of Maine's largest medical marijuana dispensary group has revealed "a laundry list" of violations of state law and program rules, including pesticide use on marijuana plants, the Department of Health and Human Services said Monday.

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(FILE) Wellness Connection of Maine’s Portland marijuana dispensary, located at the end of an alley off Congress Street behind the Local 188 restaurant. Photographed March 29, 2012.`

Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

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Wellness Connection of Maine also lacked proper security and sold an illegal marijuana derivative, according to findings from the investigation, released Monday.

The group will be allowed to continue operating its four dispensaries and sell the marijuana that was treated with pesticides, even though a state official said he doesn't know whether it could harm patients.

The DHHS said Wellness Connection of Maine, which runs dispensaries in Portland, Hallowell, Thomaston and Brewer serving about 2,400 patients, committed 20 rule violations in its cultivation facility in Auburn and other facilities.

Through the second half of last year and all of this year, nine types of pesticides were used on medical marijuana dispensed by Wellness Connection, said Kenneth Albert, director of the DHHS Division of Licensing and Regulatory Services. Pesticides also were found in baker's mix and tinctures used by patients, and bugs were found near marijuana that was to be packaged for sales.

To keep operating, the group had to sign a consent agreement with DHHS, Albert said. According to the agreement, the group must stop using pesticides, provide weekly status updates to the state and get a license for a working kitchen, along with other conditions.

He said the state will allow marijuana on the shelves at Wellness Connection's dispensaries to be sold, even if it is tainted with pesticides.

Every patient will be handed or mailed a notice describing the nine pesticides until the state is confident the marijuana being sold is pesticide-free, Albert said.

"What was important for us was to allow patients to make that choice for themselves, and in doing that we will be monitoring the dispensaries," he said.

Maine's medical marijuana program doesn't allow for pesticides to be applied to the marijuana. Albert said Wellness Connection used general-use pesticides, which are used in other areas of agriculture.

Although many of the pesticides -- such as one with sesame oil as its main active ingredient -- appear to be organic, program rules don't distinguish between organic and non-organic pesticides, Albert said.

He said he doesn't know whether patients could be harmed by the pesticides -- only that he can't assure patients which of the nine pesticides were used to treat their strain of marijuana.

Albert said one employee's tip to a state hotline started the investigation. While the DHHS was investigating, he said, it received 22 more tips from employees.

A state document that outlines the findings says an employee "admitted to applying pesticides, at the direction of senior leaders, over the last several months." Later, several employees indicated that pesticides had been used, the document says.

On March 4, the first day of the investigation, Wellness Connection Executive Director Becky DeKeuster was interviewed about the possibility of pesticide use, Albert said.

The state document says DeKeuster "indicated staff has voiced concern about the use of pesticides, and that patients are not being made aware of such use on their medicine."

But in an interview with the Portland Press Herald on March 8, DeKeuster called the state's investigation "a comprehensive regulatory inspection" and said she wasn't aware of any cultivation rule violations.

A statement posted on the group's website and Facebook page on March 9 said, "At this time, we are using only mechanical and environmental methods of contaminant abatement. We will continue to communicate with our patients about the quality and safety of their medicine and look forward to receiving the inspection report" from the DHHS.

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