PORTLAND, Maine — The leader in Maine’s burgeoning medical marijuana industry is facing allegations that it tried silencing whistleblowers and won’t acknowledge the rights of its workers to join a labor union.
The accusations — made in part by marijuana growers attempting to join the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union — is the second controversy in recent weeks to strike the Wellness Connection of Maine. Late last month, the company was cited by the Maine Department of Health and Human Services for 20 state code violations at its Auburn cultivation facility, including the illegal use of pesticides there.
Wellness Connection officials have responded by saying the current and former workers making allegations represent a small, but vocal, minority among company employees. Company leaders say they have voluntarily provided workers with generous pay and benefits packages without union influence, and that most of their employees are happy with their work conditions.
Wellness Connection is the state’s largest medical marijuana distributor under a three-year-old law legalizing the practice, with dispensaries in Portland, Thomaston, Hallowell and Brewer.
About 2,400 of Maine’s 4,000-plus medical marijuana patients are clients of Wellness Connection, a state regulator told the BDN last month.
With the latest allegations, one of Maine’s newest industries is the latest to become embroiled in the decades-old battle over employee and labor union rights.
Some company workers, union representatives and their supporters positioned themselves on Congress Street near Wellness Connection’s Portland dispensary Saturday morning to distribute leaflets to customers and passers-by about their grievances with the company.
The union organizers said the pesticides use put Wellness Connection growers in jeopardy, arguing that 10 percent of the “ground level workers” have had to call in sick because of ailments associated with the unhealthy working conditions.
Brian Lee, a Wellness Connection client, joined the protesters Saturday, saying he wants the state to shut the company down and bring criminal charges against its administrators over the pesticides violations.
“We have evidence beyond a reasonable doubt that we are being poisoned with pesticides that are illegal to put on food or anything else we ingest,” said Lee, who said he experienced bouts of nausea, sore throats and headaches while using medical marijuana to treat back pain caused by a motorcycle accident.
Labor leaders also accused the company of refusing to recognize unionized workers and attempting to silence employees who are trying report workplace problems to state regulators, commonly referred to as whistleblowers.
“Workers have basically been told they have to break the law or risk losing their jobs,” said Matt Schlobohm, executive director of the Maine AFL-CIO, on Saturday. “I don’t think any worker in the state of Maine or anywhere should have to deal with that situation.”
A Department of Health and Human Services representative told the BDN in late March the state investigation into Wellness Connection’s Auburn facility was triggered by a call from one of the firm’s workers.
But Patricia Rosi, chief operating officer for Wellness Connection, said the whistleblower silencing allegations are untrue, and that she’s not convinced a majority of workers want to unionize. She said the company has been cooperating with state regulators since the citations.
Rosi said like any young company in an emerging field, Wellness Connection is dealing with “growing pains,” but said administrators keep an “open door policy” and welcome employee feedback.
“I have nothing against unions, personally,” she said Saturday. “If a majority of our employees want to form a union, then there’s a process that should be followed and then we would make sure all of our employees’ voices are heard, not just a few individuals.”
In a letter distributed to Maine newspapers and signed by 14 Wellness Connection managers and employees, the group of company supporters wrote that the pesticides were not dangerous, and largely consisted of vegetable oils or other plant-based materials.
Rosi said pesticides of some form are considered necessary for any large-scale agricultural production, “whether you’re growing tomatoes or medical cannabis,” and that the products the company used were “standard practice in California and in other states.”
“‘Pesticides’ is a big term that can be very scary,” Rosi said. “But if you look at the list [of pesticides Wellness Connection used] you’d see sesame oil and organic-certified products. [State regulators] told us they had a different understanding of ‘pesticide,’ a much stricter interpretation of what that is, and that’s fine with us. We will no longer use those products moving forward.”
The letter writers also defended the company’s treatment of workers.
“Wellness Connection of Maine voluntarily began to provide, with no external pressure from labor unions, its employees with health insurance benefits, a company-matching 401(k) program, fair pay, and many other resources that many companies do not voluntarily offer their employees,” the group wrote, in part.