THOMASTON, ME — After management ignored complaints about the use of pesticides on medical marijuana plants and other unsatisfactory working conditions, workers at Wellness Connection dispensary in Thomaston say that they took the next step – they reported the violations to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. And now they’re forming a union branch with the United Food and Commercial Workers International (UFCW), the largest retail union in the country.
On Monday, March 26, the Division of Licensing and Regulatory Services (DLRS), which oversees the Maine Medical Marijuana Program, revealed the results of their investigation, which found a laundry list of violations at Wellness Connection’s growing facilities and four medical marijuana dispensaries located around the state.
The DLRS cited the use of pesticides in the growing of medical marijuana, the lack of proper security and the production and sale of an illegal form of marijuana among the more than 20 violations of state rules governing medical marijuana that were uncovered during its month-long investigation of Wellness Connection, which operates dispensaries in Thomaston, Brewer, Hallowell and Portland and grows marijuana in Auburn and Thomaston.
According to DLRS, the facility has agreed to the terms and conditions required by state regulators in order for the business to remain open.
DLRS Director Kenneth Albert said that the investigation of the Wellness Connection began at the Auburn grow site, but was extended to all of the company’s facilities, including Thomaston’s on March 14. The most serious of the violations was the use of pesticides in the growing operation.
“Part of our agreement with the Wellness Connection is the requirement that all patients will be notified that pesticides have been used and that this practice will cease immediately,” Albert said. “The use of pesticides on medical marijuana is not allowed by state law, as the harmful effect of pesticides when ignited and inhaled is not … known.” Albert said DLRS identified nine pesticides that were on marijuana that was used in tinctures, baker’s mix and all strains dispensed by the Wellness Connection.
A message on the organization’s website dated March 9 states that allegations of using pesticides on their product were false: “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 DLRS.”
Wellness Connection Executive Director Becky DeKeuster did not respond to calls for an interview, but Dekeuster, along with Chief Operating Officer Patricia Rosi-Santucci and Board President Paul Sevigny, signed the consent agreement with DLRS March 25, admitting to the use of pesticides along with the other 19 violations.
Albert said while no one in Maine had reported an illness related to consuming medical marijuana on which pesticides had been applied, he knew of one death in California, which was a “direct result of inhaling medical marijuana tainted with pesticides.” Albert said he didn’t have any more details on the incident.
In addition, Albert said that the company was selling a product known as keif, which is not permissible under state law. Keif refers to the resin glands of cannabis, which may accumulate in containers or be sifted from loose, dry cannabis buds. It contains a much higher concentration of psychoactive cannabinoids than medicinal marijuana.
Also in the list of violations was a charge of conflicts of interest among members of the board of directors. In the consent agreement, DLRS has directed Wellness Connection to “implement polices and procedures to prevent such conflicts in the future, including the prevention of any and all direct and indirect gains which could accrue to the member as a result of actions or decisions made in the capacity of board authority.”
There were many other violations listed in the Statement of Deficiencies pertaining to security, governance, inventory control and disposal of unused products.
According to workers at the Thomaston Wellness Connection, the tension with management had been building for a while and had boiled over with a walkout at the Auburn growing facility at the end of February. Amanda Kaler, a production assistant at the Thomaston location, places responsibility for the pesticide use on Opus Consulting Group, which has been helping to manage the non-profit dispensary. Kaler says the Opus managers were not licensed to handle medical marijuana in the state. In the consent agreement with DLRS, Wellness Connection has agreed to only permit registered marijuana cultivators access to the facility.
According to Kaler, Opus Consulting hired a “cultivation expert” from California, who instructed the workers to spray the plants with various pesticides and told them that “they all do this in California. It’s the industry’s dirty little secret.”
According to workers at the Thomaston facility, DeKeuster repeatedy ignored protests from the workers over the company’s practices, and when management instructed them to use the chemical insecticide pyrethrin, they decided to file a complaint with the state.
Paul McCarrier of the Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine (MMCM), a network of individual cannabis growers who have often been at odds with dispensary practices, says the latest development is not surprising.
“I think the issue illustrates the inherent weakness of a large, centralized grow and it further reinforces the need for small producers around the state, because when something in a large grow goes wrong, it affects thousands of people.”
Wellness Connection reportedly sells to 2,400 registered patients. Kaler agrees that growing a massive quantity of a mono crop indoors without using pesticides to control various pests poses a problem, but that’s the way the law was crafted. She points out that, unlike in Maine, California dispensaries are permitted to buy medicine from licensed growers, but there’s not an effective regulatory body in place to ensure the safety of the product. However, under Maine law, dispensaries, unlike caregivers, are subject to inspections.
Patient Privacy Concerns
Patients’ rights activists are also concerned about a decision by DLRS to require Wellness Connection to disclose patient information to the state. A 2011 Maine law abolished a requirement for medical marijuana patients to register with the state. The MMCM and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lobbied to keep the names of patients confidential, citing privacy concerns.
“It’s unfortunate that both Wellness Connection agreed to violate patients’ confidentiality and the Department used the hunt for information on patients,” said McCarrier.
However, Albert says DLRS just wanted a record of sales transactions.
“The request for that had nothing to do with the names of the patients themselves,” said Albert. “The information we were seeking for the investigation just contained the patients’ names.”
As part of the agreement between DLRS and the Wellness Connection, which is in effect for two years, the Wellness Connection must submit weekly status reports until the program is in full compliance with all conditions.
“We will be extremely active in assuring that the Wellness Connection abides by the rules governing the medical marijuana program,’ Albert said.
The Unionization Effort
Meanwhile, the workers at the four dispensaries and grow facilities are focusing on gaining legal status for their union, and they are calling for the dismissal of the Opus Management Consulting team, which includes Wellness Chief Financial Officer Jaques Santucci and Director of Operations Brad Francis.
“During this process, we thought it would be best if the employees could band together to have one voice, and that’s why we decided we would look into forming a union,” said Kaler. “We were put in touch with UFCW because they were the folks who organized the union of cannabis workers in California.”
On Monday evening union representatives reportedly met with the Wellness Connection management, but did not reach a resolution, according to Dan Rush, director of the UFCW’s National Medical Cannabis and Hemp Division Campaign.
“We’re going back and working with the workers and developing a comprehensive plan to move forward,” said Rush.
On Tuesday afternoon, as several patients walked in and out with their medicine, workers at the Thomaston facility said they intend to either gain recognition from management voluntarily or by petitioning the National Labor Relations Board. So far, a majority of the employees of the organization have reportedly pledged support to form the union.
In 2010, UFCW began organizing medical marijuana workers and has represented thousands of members in the pot industry in six states. However, according to the New Republic Magazine, federal raids have reduced their numbers to around 500. According to a report by See Change Strategy LLC, commissioned by the American Cannabis Research Institute, medical marijuana was a $1.7-billion market in 2011, and could increase to $8.9 billion in five years. This has encouraged organizers in the labor movement to look to the marijuana workers, as private-sector union membership has fallen to 6.6 percent of the workforce in recent years, according to the US Department of Labor.
As for the future of Wellness Connection and its workers, Kaler says they are more concerned about the patients.
“Our message is that we care more about our patients and the Maine medical marijuana program than we care about our jobs and we’re going to continue to fight for them,” she said.