HALLOWELL — About 30 protesters, many of whom said they were medical marijuana users, made impassioned speeches Friday about their experience with Wellness Connection of Maine and other gripes about the company and the fledgling industry.
Some in the crowd handed out marijuana products, including lollipops and vials of liquid containing THC, the drug’s main psychoactive ingredient. Others took turns smoking a marijuana cigarette.
Brian Lee, a former patient of Wellness Connection, said he stopped using a Wellness Connection dispensary when he learned that the company had violated state law by using pesticides on some of its products.
“They’re treating us like we don’t know any better,” Lee, 44, of Sebago, shouted to the crowd during a rally Friday afternoon at the back entrance to the Hallowell dispensary. “They’re treating us like we don’t know anything.”
A recent state investigation of Wellness Connection, Maine’s largest medical marijuana dispensary group, found a long list of violations of state law and program rules, including pesticide use.
The state Department of Health and Human Services required the company to sign a consent agreement to continue operating. The agreement dictates that the company must stop using pesticides, provide weekly status updates and be subject to unannounced visits from the department, said Kenneth Albert, director of the DHHS Division of Licensing and Regulatory Services.
Wellness Connection also must notify patients in writing that pesticides were applied to the marijuana before it sells the drug to them.
However, the protesters who gathered Friday didn’t think the state went far enough. Many want the company to stop operating in Maine.
“As far as I’m concerned, Wellness, get the hell out of the state,” said Steve Brown, a protester and medical marijuana user who was in a wheelchair.
Brown, 48, of Richmond, said he used to used to be a patient at Wellness Connection but stopped after feeling discomfort in his throat and chest from smoking the marijuana. He wore a sweatshirt with the words, “I don’t look sick because I choose cannabis for my medicine.”
He said he prefers using a caregiver for his medical marijuana because it’s a more personal experience. He said his caregiver will talk with him and help hold his joint if he’s unable to do so.
“I don’t know who’s behind the counter,” Brown said, motioning to the Wellness Center dispensary.
Lee said he also wants to see Wellness Connection out of Maine because of the pesticide use.
“We don’t want any poison is our medication, which was the whole point from the start,” he said.
The actual danger of the use of pesticides isn’t clear. Regulators don’t set standards for use of pesticide on the plants because marijuana is illegal under federal law.
A toxicologist for the Board of Pesticide Control found that the active ingredients in the pesticides used by Wellness Connection are either natural substances or synthetic versions of natural substances.
Albert said the department decided to allow the company to sell the marijuana after determining pesticides used weren’t banned pesticides.
“We spent time working with our partners on the Board of Pesticides Control, and we made a decision that we did not want to stop the flow of medical marijuana to patients, as long we knew they were fully informed of what was actually used in the cultivation of medical marijuana,” he said.
Patricia Rosi, chief operating officer for Wellness Connection, rejected the notion from some of the protesters that the pesticides are dangerous. She said that there’s no evidence of an effect on health from using them.
“We were using methods of control that were the safest and most benign we could think of,” Rosi said from inside the dispensary during the rally.
She said the department’s definition of “pesticide” was stricter than the company anticipated.
Rosi said they stopped using pesticides in February and will never use them again. She said they haven’t run into any problems with pests since stopping the use of the pesticides.
A couple of hours before the rally in Hallowell, about 10 protesters gathered outside the a state office building housing the Division of Licensing and Regulatory Services on Anthony Avenue in Augusta.
Workers of Wellness Connection and the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union plan to hold a news conference and literature drop today in Portland.
A number of employees joined the union after the state investigation, which was prompted by an employee tip. At Friday’s rally, a few members of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union handed out fliers to protesters promoting the Portland rally, which appears focused mainly on unionizing employees at Wellness Connection.
Paul Koenig — 621-5663