AUGUSTA — The operator of four of Maine’s eight medical marijuana dispensaries was fined $18,000 on Friday for using pesticides on plants in violation of state law and program rules.

In March, a state investigation of Wellness Connection of Maine, with dispensaries in Hallowell, Portland, Thomaston and Brewer, found nine pesticides at the company’s cultivation facility in Auburn and other facilities, finding 20 violations in all between May 2012 and March 2013.

The $18,000 penalty comes from the Maine Board of Pesticides Control for unlawful use of pesticides on marijuana. It has been negotiated over the past few months, but the board formally approved of the penalty on Friday, according to Henry Jennings, the board’s executive director.

On Thursday, Wellness Connection officials said they have already paid the fine in full.

“We’ve now revamped our operations,” said Patricia Rosi-Santucci, Wellness Connection’s chief operating officer. “Now, this is a thing of the past and we’re focused on the future.”

After requesting an analysis from the pesticide board, the Portland Press Herald reported that five of the nine pesticides the group was cited for using contain active ingredients that are safe for many uses and federally approved for use on tobacco. At the time, Wellness Connection served 2,400 patients.

In a summary of the settlement with Wellness Connection, the pesticides board says the pesticides were “potentially harmful” to patients using treated medical marijuana. The company agreed to the penalty in July.

Many of the pesticides contained natural active ingredients, such as vegetable oils. Back then, the state didn’t approve of any pesticide use on marijuana, so essentially any substance could be deemed a pesticide.

That’s different now: Wellness Connection and other dispensaries lobbied legislators to support a bill that would allow some use of low-risk pesticides on plants. That bill, L.D. 1531, a emergency bill sponsored by Sen. Thomas Saviello, R-Wilton, became law in June.

Substances allowed under the bill are determined by a list of more than 30 active ingredients exempt from federal registration under section 25(b) of the federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act. They are deemed virtually harmless and include sesame oil, soybean oil and peppermint oil.

In June, Kenneth Albert, director of the Department of Health & Human Services’ Division of Licensing and Regulatory Services said, under the bill, each pesticide also would have to be registered for use in Maine.

If the substance were to be used on marijuana plants that would be turned into edible products, it would face more scrutiny, Albert said then.

However, Becky DeKeuster, Wellness Connection’s executive director, said Thursday that they company is using environmental and mechanical methods, along with insects, including parasitic wasps, to control pests.

She said the company complied with state law and rules “almost immediately.” Rosi-Santucci said that was one of the mitigating factors the state used to reduce its original penalty of $25,000 to $18,000.

Now, she said the company has no need to even use the pesticides it is allowed to use under state law.

“It’s good to have the 25(b)s in the toolkit,” DeKeuster said. “Are they one of the first things we’ll use? No, they’re probably one of the last.”

Michael Shepherd — 621-5632
mshepherd@mainetoday.com