After weeks of investigation, the state has found 20 violations at a medical marijuana company with a cultivation operation in Auburn.
The Division of Licensing and Regulatory Services considered the most serious violation to be the company's use of pesticides in its growing operation. Because pesticide use has not been well studied with medical marijuana and officials are concerned about its health effects, state law expressly prohibits medical marijuana growers from using pesticides.
But while state officials say pesticides are a concern and Wellness Connection of Maine must immediately stop using them on its plants, the state is allowing the company to sell to patients, with notice, its remaining marijuana stock — which has been treated with pesticides.
"Patients need to take the steps with their primary caregivers to talk about whether or not the value of the medicinal marijuana outweighs the risk associated with consuming cannabis that has been cultivated with general use pesticides," said Kenneth Albert, director of the Division of Licensing and Regulatory Services, which oversees the state's medical marijuana program.
Wellness Connection operates four dispensaries, one each in Portland, Hallowell, Brewer and Thomaston. It also runs a growing operating at 33 Omni Circle in Auburn, near the Auburn-Lewiston Municipal Airport.
The state investigation started at the Auburn facility on March 4 after a complaint from an employee, but it soon included all of the company's facilities.
"In a very short period of time we received 22 different complaints (from employees)," said Albert, though he added that he couldn't be certain those complaints came from 22 people.
Wellness Connection has 40 to 60 employees, he said.
A handful of people claiming to be Wellness Connection employees called the Sun Journal over the past two weeks to talk about the situation there. Because they remain employees and fear for their jobs, all asked to remain anonymous.
They described an unsanitary, bug-infested growing operation that had mold and fungus on or near the plants. They said the facility was often open to bugs and the elements as repair or construction workers propped open doors and deliveries came through.
They said plants commonly were treated with pesticides and fungicides in an effort to control the problem.
They said Auburn employees staged a one-day walk-out in February over the issues. They said management promised to make changes, but little was done.
Some said they were patients as well as employees, and they pulled their plants from the growing facility because of the conditions there.
"This place is a mess," one person said.
State investigators found similar issues, including bugs and mold in the facility.
The division said Wellness had a "laundry list" of violations, including: selling an illegal form of marijuana, lacking proper security, allowing unlicensed workers on site and failing to properly inventory stock — which led investigators to discover 2 ounces of marijuana unaccounted for at the Hallowell dispensary one day.
Albert said the state was ready to suspend Wellness Connection's license Monday if its leaders did not sign a consent agreement with the state. Those officials did, agreeing to, among other things, cease the use of pesticides, notify patients that Wellness Connection used pesticide, cease sale of kief or kiefer, an extra-potent, illegal form of marijuana, and submit to frequent inspections by the state.
The division also found a conflict of interest with the Wellness Connection's board of directors. A number of board members left in recent months, leaving just three people. One of those, Patricia Rosi-Santucci, was also employed as Wellness Connection's vice president of marketing — a problem when she represents a third of the board.
But investigators were most concerned about the pesticides. While other states allow pesticide use in medical marijuana, Maine does not, Albert said, because no one knows the affects pesticide-treated marijuana will have on a patient when its ignited and inhaled.
He said one patient in California died as a direct result of inhaling marijuana laden with pesticides. But, he added, many of the pesticides used by Wellness Connection are generally used in agriculture.
No one has reported getting sick from pesticides in Wellness Connection's marijuana.
Albert said Executive Director Becky DeKeuster admitted on the first day of the investigation that Wellness Connection was using pesticides and knew it was illegal.
"What she said, essentially, was that she was made aware by staff that pesticides had been used, that the staff had brought these concerns to her, and she was investigating," he said.
As part of the agreement, Wellness Connection must stop using pesticides immediately. It must also send a letter to all former and current patients and tell every patient who comes in that the company's marijuana was treated with pesticides. But as long as it notifies patients, Wellness Connection can continues to sell the pesticide-treated marijuana that it has.
"What was important for us was to allow patients to make that choice for themselves," Albert said.
Wellness Connection owns four of the eight medical marijuana dispensaries in Maine, making it the largest distributor in the state. It serves about 2,400 patients.
Patients can go to another dispensary or to a caregiver to get medical marijuana.
"All a patient has to do is de-designate one dispensary and re-designate another, and that can happen all in the same day," Albert said.
Wellness Connection does not own Remedy Compassion Center, a medical marijuana dispensary on Center Street in Auburn.
Messages and emails to DeKeuster, were not returned by deadline Monday night, and no contact information was available for other company officials. It is unclear whether Wellness Connection will offer refunds to patients who unknowingly bought medical marijuana treated with pesticides.