Politics

March 9, 2013

State officials open investigation of medical marijuana supplier

By Michael Shepherd mshepherd@mainetoday.com
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA — The cultivation center that supplies Maine's largest operator of medical marijuana dispensaries is under investigation by state officials, but the state won't say why.

The center in Auburn that grows marijuana for Wellness Connection of Maine's four dispensaries is being investigated by the Department of Health and Human Services' Division of Licensing and Regulatory Services, said DHHS spokesman John Martins.

Martins said in an email Friday that "there have been no investigations of this type previously" in Maine's medical marijuana business.

Licensed dispensaries must abide by the state's cultivation rules. For example, pesticides cannot be used and dispensaries are limited to six mature plants for each patient.

Citing "an open and active investigation" that began this week in Auburn, Martins said he couldn't comment further on the matter, including whether law enforcement is involved.

Auburn police Lt. Tim Cougle said his department's presence was requested by state officials during the investigation, but the department itself isn't investigating.

Becky DeKeuster, Wellness Connection's executive director, described the action by the DHHS as "a comprehensive regulatory inspection" of the cultivation center.

When asked if she knew of any potential violations of cultivation rules, she said, "No. We haven't received their reports."

Wellness Connection of Maine opened a dispensary in Thomaston in September 2011, followed by a Hallowell location in January 2012, a Portland dispensary in March 2012 and a dispensary in Brewer in May.

It closed all four dispensaries this week, according to posts on its Facebook page. DeKeuster said there was no connection between the investigation and the closings.

On Wednesday, the company said it was closing the dispensary in Hallowell "for unexpected reasons."

Later that day, it said that because of "systemwide technical challenges," the dispensary in Portland would be closed until Friday and the other dispensaries would reopen Monday.

A post Friday said the Portland location is "open and fully stocked."

"For all of you who have expressed concern, thank you," read a Facebook post from Wednesday. "While our systems are being upgraded, we're hard at work preparing our next harvest for you. Thank you for your patience and we look forward to seeing you soon!"

Paul McCarrier, legislative liaison for Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine, an advocacy group for patients and state-licensed caregivers, said his group has fielded 28 phone calls in recent days from concerned patients of Wellness Connection of Maine.

He said the dispensaries' closings show that Wellness Connection has "completely failed in their fulfillment of their initial applications."

"The biggest concern is with people who have consistently been getting their medication there who lost their source," McCarrier said.

Eric Cousens, Auburn's director of planning and permitting, said the dispensary chain's cultivation center is in a 20,000-square-foot section of a building at 33 Omni Circle, off Lewiston Junction Road, near the Lewiston-Auburn Municipal Airport.

Cousens said that when Wellness Connection moved in, it told city officials that it spent an estimated $900,000 to retrofit the building for its purposes.

Mainers voted in 2009 to set up a regulatory framework for dispensing marijuana. The state's first dispensary opened in 2011 in Aroostook County.

Wellness Connection, which was called Northeast Patients Group until December 2011, has been controversial since it won a contract in 2010 to operate half of the state's dispensaries.

Northeast Patients Group was sued for $632,000 in unpaid loans by its former partner in California, Berkeley Patients Group, in July 2011 in Cumberland County Superior Court. The lawsuit was settled in June 2012.

The California group asked that DeKeuster be removed from her post, which didn't happen. The lawsuit alleged that DeKeuster, while working for Berkeley Patients Group, used that group's proprietary information to negotiate a financing deal between Northeast Patients Group and ex-NBA player Cuttino Mobley.

Berkeley alleged that DeKeuster signed a letter of intent with Mobley in February 2011 and resigned from Berkeley just after that, effectively cutting the California group out of Maine's medical marijuana market.


State House Bureau Writer Michael Shepherd can be reached at 370-7652 or at mshepherd@mainetoday.com

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