Aurora Blackthorn waters her “babies” recently in a greenhouse on the outskirts of Farmington where she works with Erica Haywood growing hemp. Sun Journal photo by Russ Dillingham

FARMINGTON — Erica Haywood had been growing, formulating and selling medical marijuana products for about five years and was in her first year of cultivating and selling hemp when something went wrong.

Unbeknownst to her, a supply of hemp flowers she sent out for processing into oil came back contaminated with rubbing alcohol

Haywood didn’t know anything was amiss until one of her clients approached her, saying she’d experienced some strange symptoms and had sent her oil for testing. The news devastated Haywood and her husband, who had built their company, LoveGrown Agricultural Research in Farmington, on providing safe, organic products.

“We were floored, shocked, everything,” Haywood said.

That was the first time LoveGrown had used someone else to process its products. It was also the last.

“Until there is some sort of verification required, there is no way I’d use anybody,” Haywood said, “at least not without testing and verifying it myself.”

That requirement may be coming.

The state is considering rules that would mandate testing of recreational marijuana products sold to consumers, including testing for residual solvents, harmful chemicals, mold, pesticides and microbes. Similar rules for medical marijuana could follow.

“I think that there’s a significant interest in the Legislature to make sure that patients who are receiving product in the medical program are receiving product that is just as safe, if not safer, than that which is in the future adult use program,” said David Heidrich, spokesman for the Maine Department of Administrative and Financial Services, which includes the newly created Office of Marijuana Policy.

Medical marijuana possession has been legal in Maine since 1999 and dispensaries have been legal since 2009. However, only one consumer safety rule covers medical marijuana and it has to do with pesticides. There has been no requirement to test for toxins, poisons or other harmful contents before a product reaches patients.

In 2016, Maine voters approved recreational marijuana, but regulations were delayed. This year, the state created the Office of Marijuana Policy and released draft rules governing the recreational marijuana program and proposed rules covering mandatory testing of those recreational products.

Those mandatory testing rules do not need legislative approval and could be implemented this year. The state could then align Maine’s recreational and medical marijuana programs to also require mandatory testing of medical marijuana.

“There’s a Marijuana Advisory Commission that the Legislature created, and they actually have to deliver a report to the Legislature early next year,” Heidrich said. “And one of the big items that they’re tasked with doing is providing recommendations as to how the two programs can be aligned as closely as possible.”

Such mandatory testing could have stopped Haywood from receiving and sending out tainted oil.

Erica Haywood peers through some young plants in her Farmington greenhouse recently. Sun Journal photo by Russ Dillingham

Her processor did not — and did not have to — test for contaminants, so he said he didn’t know the product had a problem. Neither did LoveGrown.

Haywood said three clients received oil from the tainted batch. Two used it, including a teenage girl in pain from a rare disease. That girl’s mother later told the Portland Press Herald that her daughter began experiencing itching, headaches and stomach aches about a month after she started the oil. Haywood said the girl had received a diluted version of the oil that later tested safe.

The other person who used it, a woman from Vassalboro, told the Portland Press Herald that she also began to feel sick after taking the oil. She told the newspaper she had the oil tested and it contained more than three times the Massachusetts legal limit for rubbing alcohol.

That woman brought the problem to Haywood’s attention. Haywood said the lab results were also circulated on social media, where people threatened her for selling tainted oil.

“It was so scary,” Haywood said. “I was scheduled to appear at the NoCo Hemp Expo in Colorado, and because of all of these threats of violence, I canceled. I was too scared to go by myself. I had no idea who was going to come up to me and stab me because I ‘poisoned children’ according to this Facebook group.”

Haywood said follow-up lab tests showed the amount of rubbing alcohol found in the oil shouldn’t have been enough to make anyone sick, but she agrees that no amount should have been in it. She prides herself on LoveGrown’s organic certification and said rubbing alcohol shouldn’t have been anywhere near her products.

She said she offered a refund and an apology to those affected, and she immediately decided to keep all processing in-house so she could be solely responsible for quality and safety.

She likens the risk to this: “You’re a farmer, you grow cows, beef. You send your cows off for slaughter at the end of the a season and they come back to you and some processor gives you ground goat instead.”

Haywood likes the proposed testing rules for recreational marijuana and the possibility they could include medical marijuana sometime soon. However, she is concerned that mandatory testing of every batch could put small growers out of business, particularly those for whom “a batch” is one plant and testing costs upward of $300.

She’d like to see the state waive a testing requirement for growers who are certified by another recognized group, such as the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association.

That said, she believes testing could have prevented tainted products from ever reaching her clients.

“The most encouraging part of every single day for me is that every single day somebody thanks me for what we’ve made and what we do for them,” she said. “Somebody says, ‘My life has changed.’ That’s the power of this cannabis plant when it’s handled properly, when it’s formulated potently, when it’s grown cleanly.”


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