AUGUSTA — Five of the nine pesticides that state officials say were used by Maine’s largest medical marijuana dispensary group contain active ingredients that are safe for many uses and federally approved for use on tobacco, according to Maine’s pesticide toxicologist.
But the state says it can’t vouch for the pesticides’ safety on marijuana because little is known about their interaction with the drug when smoked.
Because marijuana is illegal under federal law, regulators don’t set standards for pesticide use on the plants. That’s why Maine prohibits pesticides in its medical marijuana program.
On Monday, the state Department of Health and Human Services said its investigation of Wellness Connection of Maine, the operator of four of Maine’s eight medical marijuana dispensaries, revealed 20 violations of state law and program rules, from pesticide use to security breaches to a managerial conflict of interest.
In response to a request by the Portland Press Herald, Labelle Hicks, toxicologist for the Maine Board of Pesticides Control, analyzed the nine pesticides that the DHHS said Wellness Connection used through the second half of last year and all of this year.
She said the active ingredients are either natural substances or synthetic versions of natural substances.
“If you were to let these break down into the environment, you basically end up with the basic building blocks of life,” Hicks said.
Although its toxicologist said the pesticides are relatively safe, the Board of Pesticides Control is considering whether Wellness Connection violated state pesticide-application law, said Director Henry Jennings. He said the maximum penalty for a single, first-time violation is a $1,500 fine.
The DHHS began its investigation of Wellness Connection on March 4, in response to a complaint by an employee of the group.
On Monday, Kenneth Albert, director of the DHHS Division of Licensing and Regulatory Services, said the state “is unable to, because of the lack of research in the industry, know what the risk is associated with igniting pesticides on cannabis.”
He said that because they are legal, general-use pesticides — pesticides anyone can apply — the state is allowing Wellness Connection to sell the treated marijuana to patients.
Albert said many patients called his office after the investigation was publicized in early March, and none reported ill effects from the marijuana.
As part of a consent agreement with the state, Wellness Connection must notify patients in writing that pesticides were applied to the marijuana before it sells the drug to them. That will be required until regulators are confident that the marijuana being sold is pesticide-free, Albert said.
He said the market will decide whether it wants Wellness Connection’s product.
Patients can use other dispensaries or designate caregivers, who are authorized to grow marijuana for as many as six patients.
“Allowing the patient to make that decision for themselves was appropriate under the circumstances,” Albert said Monday.
Wellness Connection serves 2,400 patients through dispensaries in Portland, Hallowell, Thomaston and Brewer, and grows marijuana at its cultivation center in Auburn.
The more marijuana is grown in one place, the quicker pests such as spider mites can ruin crops, say cultivation experts.
Many in the medical marijuana industry denounce pesticide use. But Dr. Dustin Sulak, an osteopath who is known for recommending marijuana for many of Maine’s patients, said using pesticides, though troubling, is better than losing a crop.
“I think it would be preferable for patients to use medical marijuana without toxic pesticides on it; however, it’s not a plain black-and-white picture,” he said. “If, say, four of eight dispensaries go without being able to supply their patients, then I think the net effect on the health of this population would be worse.”
He said, “If we’re going to really grow these big indoor grow rooms full of cannabis without any pesticide option, we’re probably going to have a hard time supplying the people of the state who need this through the dispensary model.”
But Dan Tomaski, who runs Northern Lab Services, a firm in northern Michigan that tests medical marijuana for purity and potency, said destroying a crop is better than tainting it, especially for sensitive patients with ailments as serious as cancer or AIDS.
“If you don’t eradicate (pests), they will build up an immunity and you’ll have to use a stronger pesticide,” he said.
“I recommend no one spray pesticides on medical marijuana or anything that you smoke, for Pete’s sake,” Tomaski said. “Theoretically, you could kill someone.”
State Rep. James Dill, D-Old Town, a pest management specialist with the University of Maine’s Cooperative Extension, said he has been asked for tips on how to control pests in marijuana growing operations.
He said he can’t recommend much more than spraying pests off with streams of water. Because no pesticides can be used, “that’s about all you’ve got available to you,” he said.
Dill said he is concerned about pesticides’ potential effects on smokers’ lungs, because the respiratory system could be more sensitive to pesticides than the skin or the digestive system.
For example, a reference sheet on Serenade Garden Disease Control, one of the pesticides that Wellness Connection was cited for using, says it can be used in organic gardening of vegetables, fruits and flowering plants.
It also says the pesticide shouldn’t be inhaled, even though the federal Environmental Protection Agency has approved it for use on tobacco, said Hicks, with the Maine Board of Pesticides Control.
Hicks said it’s likely that patients who smoke marijuana treated with one of the five pesticides allowed for tobacco use won’t have ill effects.
But the federal government’s record on pesticide use in tobacco isn’t perfect. In 2003, the Governmental Accountability Office criticized the EPA for not examining the long-term effects of pesticides when smoked.
Allen St. Pierre, a Maine native who is executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said the state’s investigation into Wellness Connection reflects a changing public sentiment about marijuana.
He said Maine’s concern about pesticide use is “a watershed moment” in American medical marijuana politics, especially with a federal government that still says marijuana is a harmful drug with no medicinal benefits.
“I’ve been here 23 years, and the irony that the state is now concerned with the quality of marijuana is tremendous,” St. Pierre said.
Michael Shepherd can be contacted at 370-7652 or at: