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Pot Dispensary Operator in Maine Vows to Provide Safe Medicine
03/29/2013   Reported By: Susan Sharon

The executive clinical director of the Wellness Connection of Maine said her company is committed to "best practices" in the production of medical marijuana and trying to keep pace with an evolving industry. Becky DeKeuster spoke out for the first time since the state announced a consent agreement with the state's largest dispensary operator earlier this week. She also addressed attempts by employees to form a union.

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 Duration:
4:10

A month-long investigation of Wellness Connection of Maine uncovered more than 20 violations of state rules governing medical marijuana. They included lax security at an indoor grow facility in Auburn, the sale of an illegal marijuana product and the application of nine pesticides. And while executive clinical director Becky DeKeuster said the company is committed to providing safe medicine, the state's definition of pesticides IS so strict it prohibits the use of common agents.

"There's a seseme oil extract. There's a crysthanemum extract and used properly and early before flowering, these are organic options. If you're cultivating this medicine and you want to do it in a safe way we need regulations that allow for that," said DeKeuster.

However, to comply with state rules, Dekeuster said no pesticides, even naturally occurring oils, have been used on plants since February. Still, the practice has alarmed some patients and workers like Susan Gay who works at the Thomaston dispensary.

"We have lots of patients that are terminally ill even and alot of people that have sensitivities to a lot of chemicals and to ingest something not knowing what is in it, I think is a grave injustice to the patients and could potentially put lives at risk," said Gay.

Gay said she and many of her co-workers tried raising the issue with management, But were ignored. Gay said workers then took matters into their own hands. They contacted the state's Division of Licensing and Regulatory Services and at the Auburn grow facility, several employees staged a walkout last month. And now, Gay said they're trying to organize through the United Food and Commercial Workers' union which represents thousands of cannabis workers in six states. Gay said they currently have the support of more than half the staff which number 40 employees.

"We want a voice," she said. "We are people who are very committed to this program and committed to the patients that we serve and we feel that we're unable to optimally do that under the circumstances."

Among other things, workers say they are upset that they are not told who the members of the board of directors are or notified of board meetings. Several board members have reportedly left. And, until the recent consent agreement with the state, Amanda Kaler said there was a conflict of interest with some members of the upper management. Kaler also works for Wellness Connection in Thomaston.

"It's all supposed to be an open book," said Kaler. "But instead, you've got Jacques Santucci who is the CFO. He's literally the one in control of the bank account. You've got his wife, Patricia Rossi Santucci who was on the board and then gave herself the Vice President of Marketing position and now she's resigned from board when we pointed out it was a conflict of interest but put herself in the Chief Operations Officer position."

The consent agreement, signed by DeKeuster, Rossi-Santucci and the president of the board, spells out that such conflicts of interest will be resolved and that steps will be taken to ensure that no board members directly or indirectly benefit from future decisions by the board. Workers are also concerned about what they say is a staffing shortage that makes it difficult to get more than one day off a week.

"I worked sometimes six o'clock in the morning and I didn't leave until 6:00 or 7:00 at night," said Barbara Heap.

She is currently out on leave from the Auburn cultivation facility with a lung infection. She hopes a union will help bridge the gap between staff and managers. For her part, Becky DeKeuster acknowledges that there have been challenges as Wellness connection gets off the ground.
"You know, we have sought to create a safe and productive environment for our patients and our employees," said DeKeuster. "Now, I do know that a small number of our employees would like to see a faster rate of change in our business and in our industry."

DeKeuster said employees are welcome to engage in conversations with unions...although Wellness Connection managers have refused to authorize one outright. Workers are now filing for an election with the National Labor Relations Board.

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