"State's Largest Medical Marijuana Dispensary Violated Major Rules, Endangering Patients, Angering Staff"
In mid-March, a tip from an employee of the Wellness Connection of Maine (WCM) prompted an investigation that uncovered 20 violations of state rules governing the production, cultivation, and distribution of medical marijuana. The WCM, which runs four of Maine's eight medical marijuana dispensaries, was allowed to continue operations under a consent decree, a court-ordered settlement between the WCM and the state that requires weekly inspections and status updates. State-sanctioned dispensaries were created with the passage of a 2009 voter referendum that expanded Maine's existing medical marijuana law, passed in 1999.
Many of the violations result from of the use of pesticides to combat mold on plants grown indoors at a facility in Auburn. The WCM also has growing facilities in Thorndike.
While under the consent decree, WCM also violated the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which protects patient privacy, by disclosing the names of its patients to the state so the state could notify patients of the results of the investigation. A 2011 Maine law eliminated the requirement that medical marijuana patients register with the state, and the ACLU has lobbied to protect patients' rights to confidentiality. It is an incredible breach of trust to turn over patients' names to the state. I sincerely hope our lawmakers address the situation, and that the Division of Licensing and Regulation respects the privacy of 2,400 Maine residents by destroying any lists of patients it received.
As a patient, I have smoked marijuana that had some amount of mold. Although the mold was not visible to the naked eye, I developed a dry cough that lasted several days. There are no studies that address the possible health risks of smoking moldy marijuana, but there is evidence that the mold can release toxic chemicals into the lungs. The state is allowing the WCM to sell moldy marijuana to its patients -- including those with compromised immune systems, such as AIDS patients, multiple sclerosis patients, and people undergoing chemotherapy.
Nine types of pesticides were used on the WCM's medical marijuana. Some pesticides were found to be organic (the active ingredient of one is sesame oil) while others are commonly used in conventional agriculture. Patients had no way of knowing whether organic or conventional pesticides were used on their particular strain. Inspectors also found pesticides in baker's mix and tinctures created for patients. Although the state medical marijuana program does not allow pesticide use, under the consent decree, the WCM will be allowed to sell the remaining pesticide-treated product, even though the organization has agreed to stop using pesticides in the future.
Despite these issues, WCM raised its prices to more than $55 for 3.5 grams of medicine.
This winter, Becky DeKeuster, the executive director of the WCM, sent promotional literature to Ability Maine. WCM prides itself on being an industry leader, and the literature refers to "taking medical patients out of back alleys" and "setting the bar for new standards." In the history of Maine's dispensary system, no other dispensary has been forced to operate under a consent decree -- are these Ms. DeKeuster's "new standards"?
Additionally, the WCM was charged with selling an illegal form of marijuana known as kief, which contains the resin glands of the cannabis plant. As a patient, I find this practice absurd and sleazy. Paul McCarrier, a lobbyist with Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine, stated to the Kennebec Journal that "it's kind of like watering down the marijuana." Kief can contain super-potent concentrations of cannabinoids such as THC (marijuana's principal psychoactive ingredient), cannabinol, and cannabidiol. If DeKeuster wishes to provide patients with "a safe place with friendly people who care," perhaps this is not the way to do it.
According to The Daily Californian, DeKeuster was sued by her prior employer, Berkeley Patients Group, which in 2009 sent her to establish a medical marijuana group in Maine. After winning half the dispensary licenses in Maine, she allegedly entered into a contract with a competing party. She settled with Berkeley Patients Group in 2012.
For all the violations that WCM was charged with, there is still some room for frustration. Workers who wish to unionize have been told that their union will not be recognized. On April 2, medical marijuana supporter Roger Leisner called for two protests: the first, which took place on April 5, was intended to protest the handling of the investigation by the state and took place at the Maine Division of Licensing and Regulatory Services. The second protest, also on April 5, was held at the WCM in Hallowell.
Since the state gave half of the dispensaries to DeKeuster's organization, other dispensaries or caregivers will now have to absorb the exodus of patients from the WCM. Of the four remaining dispensaries, one is in northern Aroostook County, which is too great a distance for many patients to travel. A second dispensary, located in Washington County, is also far from the dispensaries run by WCM in Portland, Thomaston, Hallowell, and Brewer. Dispensaries in Auburn and Biddeford may be able to take some additional patients, but with caregivers limited regarding plant totals and the number of patients they can serve, the reality is it may be increasingly difficult for patients in Maine to access safe medical marijuana.
Update: On April 4, Maine Public Broadcasting Network's Susan Sharon reports that Wellness Connection of Maine was fined $14,000 for Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) violations. Additionally, an unnamed WCM employee stated there are now five employees currently sick with an infection that causes breathing issues, mold was growing on walls, and there are photos of these conditions. DeKeuster is refusing to recognize any labor organization.