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.
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.
DeKeuster didn’t respond to a message left on her cellphone Monday evening.
Paul McCarrier, a lobbyist for Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine, said, “It’s really a tragedy for the patients.”
He said the findings show that Wellness Connection’s upper management was “encouraging workers to be deceitful” to “people who look to them to have a safe, clean medicine.”
The state also cited Wellness Connection of Maine for its “security, governance, inventory control and disposal of unused products.”
For example, employees lacked the necessary registration to work around marijuana; plumbing and electrical contractors were allowed to work near the plants; and two ounces of marijuana from the dispensary in Hallowell went unaccounted for in a check by the DHHS.
Wellness Connection dispensaries also were selling “kief” — resin that comes from cannabis and can accumulate in containers or be shaken or sifted from dried buds, the state said. Albert said program rules have long been interpreted to prohibit sales of kief, which produces a high concentration of psychoactive ingredients.
McCarrier said that if Wellness Connection was producing kief, it may have been removing it from plants it would sell — effectively watering down the marijuana’s medicinal quality to boost profits.
The state also cited the group for a managerial conflict of interest, prohibited in dispensaries by state law. It says Patricia Rosi-Santucci was hired as the group’s vice president of marketing in September 2012, while she was a member of the group’s board of directors. Documents say she’s now the group’s chief operating officer.
The state didn’t learn of her resignation from the board until this month, and Albert said that when she assumed her executive role, she was one of only three board members, which was an “inherent conflict.”
Albert said Rosi-Santucci is married to Jacques Santucci, a Portland-based business consultant who has long been linked to Wellness Connection of Maine.
The state document says “Jacques S.” has been serving as acting chief financial officer, but he doesn’t have the necessary identification card to do so.
Jacques Santucci didn’t return a call seeking comment Monday evening.
Albert said that in assigning responsibility for violations, “the buck stops with the board of directors,” which is ultimately in charge of the group.
Despite the violations, he said he’s confident that Wellness Connection of Maine can rebound and grow marijuana without pesticides.
“If the commissioner or I were uncomfortable with their ability to come into compliance and produce medicine at the rate of production they need, we would be having a very different discussion with Wellness Connection today,” he said.
McCarrier said he wouldn’t speculate on the violations’ effect on the dispensaries’ business, but the group will have to atone to keep patients’ trust.
“I’m trying to imagine how they can try to make it up to their patients or the general community,” McCarrier said. “It’s tough to think of what that will take to make people have trust in them again.”
Michael Shepherd can be reached at 370-7652 or at: