April 3, 2013

Our View: Pot dispensary has high profile for wrong reasons

If Wellness Connection fails to live up to a consent agreement, many patients will be left in the lurch.

In the short history of medical marijuana dispensary operations in Maine, the state's largest dispensary group has made more appearances in the headlines than its four counterparts around the state combined.

click image to enlarge

The site of a Wellness Connection marijuana growing operation at 33 Omni Circle in Auburn that came under scrutiny after a tip that the company used pesticides on its plants.

Gabe Souza / Staff Photographer

Just in the past eight weeks, Wellness Connection of Maine has experienced employee allegations of violations of state law and program rules, a state investigation, a brief employee walkout and ongoing labor unrest.

The head of the state's licensing authority has said he's certain Wellness Connection will follow the rules from now on. However, given the organization's track record, we're skeptical.

Wellness Connection of Maine runs four of the state's legally licensed dispensaries and serves about 2,400 patients. An employee's tip that Wellness Connection was violating state law by using pesticides at its Auburn grow facility prompted a state investigation.

As part of a consent agreement with the state, Wellness Connection agreed to stop using pesticides. Each of its dispensaries will be allowed to sell the plants that were treated with pesticides, but it must inform patients that they are buying plants to which pesticides were applied.

Responding to a Portland Press Herald request, a state toxicologist conducted an analysis that concluded that the nine pesticides used by Wellness Connection were relatively safe. However, the state can't officially vouch for pesticides' safety on medical marijuana because nobody knows a lot about what happens when someone smokes pesticide-treated pot.

Thus, patients must decide whether to find another dispensary or take their chances at Wellness Connection. Someone who is already debilitated might not welcome having to choose between traveling to buy their medication or researching the various arguments for and against pesticide use and weighing their validity.

We also question whether Wellness Connection is willing to acknowledge employees' product safety concerns. The single employee tip that launched the state investigation was followed by 22 more tips during the investigation. Wellness Connections workers apparently felt they had to go outside the chain of command to be heard.

Worse, said Paul McCarrier, lobbyist for Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine, the state probe found that Wellness Connection's upper management "was encouraging workers to be deceitful" to "people who look to them to have a safe, clean medicine."

In fact, Wellness Corrections' director contradicted herself about whether the organization used pesticides. On the first day of the inquiry, Becky DeKeuster "indicated staff has voiced concern about the use of pesticides," the state reported. Four days later, she told the Press Herald that she knew of no cultivation rule violations and that the inquiry was "a comprehensive regulatory inspection."

The consent agreement between Wellness Connection and the state calls for frequent inspections and weekly status reports. Will these and other provisions be enough to ensure reform of the group's management practices? The group's history doesn't give us confidence -- which is unfortunate, considering that desperately ill people will bear the brunt if Wellness Connection proves unwilling or incapable of following the law.


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