State regulators are investigating allegations that a politically connected medical marijuana grower in Maryland illegally used pesticides in growing cannabis plants that were later harvested for sale to patients.
Three former employees at the Anne Arundel County growing center of the cannabis producer ForwardGro made the allegations in sworn statements sent to the General Assembly last week by a newly formed association of companies in the medical marijuana business that oppose pesticide use in growing the plants.
Ashley Colen, president of the Maryland Ethical Cannabis Association and the holder of a dispensary license, said she stopped selling products from ForwardGro’s plants after learning of the allegations. Colen, co-owner of the Ash+Ember dispensary in Centreville on the Eastern Shore, said some of her customers reported side effects such as burning eyes and throats.
“This is about patient safety, not about money,” she said. “We’re supposed to be looking out for the patients.”
Colen said she has discussed the allegations with Joy Strand, executive director of the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission.
A commission spokeswoman, Jennifer White, said the agency is investigating.
“Of course we take all of this information seriously, and the Bureau of Enforcement and Compliance here with the commission is looking into it,” she said.
ForwardGro issued a statement categorically denying the allegations and calling them “an attack on our business.”
“Every ForwardGro batch was properly tested by an independent testing lab and we have never had any product fail for pesticides,” the company said. “Patient advocacy and patient safety have always been, and will always be, our priority. We are following the path driven by the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission and are cooperating fully with them.”
The company said that once the commission’s investigation is complete, it will be prepared to comment further.
ForwardGro is co-owned by Gary Mangum, a prominent supporter of Gov. Larry Hogan’s who served on his transition team and inauguration committee. According to the affidavits, Mangum took part in two meetings in April in which greenhouse workers informed him about their concerns about “illegal pesticide application” at the company’s growing facility.
Mangum declined to comment for this article. He referred a reporter to a company spokeswoman, who released the statement.
All three affidavits describe persistent use of pesticides in the company’s greenhouse by workers who were told not to discuss their use with ForwardGro’s compliance officer. Two of the employees, brothers Evan and Brandan Norris, said they worked there from January through April of this year. White said that during that period, and earlier, the use of pesticides in growing medical cannabis was illegal.
The third ex-employee, Brad MacDonald, said he began work at ForwardGro in April 2017 before the first plants were delivered to the greenhouse in Lothian. MacDonald described a crop that was infected with powdery mildew from the beginning and later was infested with spider mites and other pests. He said he was instructed by supervisors beginning in June 2017 to spray or douse the plants with a variety of pesticides and other chemicals.
MacDonald said that in February, he was ordered by a supervisor not to talk to the compliance officer about “anything to do with the cultivation process” or issues concerning pesticides, according to his sworn affidavit. But in April, MacDonald said, he became “tired of lying,” and he and Evan Norris took their concerns to the compliance chief, whose job was to see that the company followed commission rules.
The Norrises said they resigned in late April. MacDonald said he stayed until June 19 and continued to spray pesticides that were given code names.
During this year’s legislative session, lawmakers adopted an amendment to a much-broader medical marijuana bill opening the door to the use of pesticides. The provision instructed the Maryland Department of Agriculture to develop emergency regulations by June 1 on acceptable forms of pest control. Interim rules, which allow the use of pesticides the federal government classifies as “minimum risk,” took effect Friday after they were approved by a legislative committee that reviews proposed regulations.
It was not clear whether the pesticides named in the affidavits would be acceptable under the interim regulations, which do not list specific products. The interim rules are in effect until September. State officials are expected to compile such a list.