Doubts heard about medical marijuana operation
AUGUSTA — As Maine’s largest medical marijuana nonprofit organization plans to open its dispensaries, the man originally tapped to run its growing operation says the organization does not have enough space to grow the product its patients need.
Meanwhile, leading state patient advocates say those who have signed up to receive medical marijuana from a Wellness Connection of Maine dispensary in Thomaston have run up against difficulty setting up appointments and stringent product limits that are well below the amounts allowed by state law.
“It’s the continued modus operandi of Northeast — promise something you can’t perform,” said Paul McCarrier, who answers the phone for Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine, the advocacy group for which he serves as a board member.
But, in a prepared statement, the state regulators of the program said they haven’t heard patient complaints and are unconcerned with the size of the Thomaston facility.
And Wellness Connection of Maine, called Northeast Patients Group until the nonprofit changed its name last month, says they have sufficient space. The group did confirm, though, it is placing limits on product because it’s a fledgling operation.
Matthew Hawes, a Holden native who lives in northern California, was slated to be the supervisor of all aspects of the cultivation program under applications that Northeast Patients Group won in 2010 for four dispensary licenses.
In minutes from an April 2010 Augusta Planning Board meeting, Hawes was cited as saying that the organization would need a 10,000- to 20,000-square-foot building to grow enough marijuana for the four dispensaries they are licensed to operate in Maine.
Wellness Connection Executive Director Becky DeKeuster has previously said that the Thomaston dispensary has been open since September and would be the initial cultivation base for the four dispensaries.
Through spokeswoman Jane Lane, DeKeuster this week denied a reporter’s request for a tour of the dispenary.
Now, as Wellness Connection readies in the coming months to open three dispensaries — in Hallowell, Portland and Brewer — Hawes, after a split with the group, says the Thomaston location was never meant for large-scale growing and is insufficient to grow for the number patients anticipated by Wellness Connection.
Thomaston assessor’s agent, Dave Martucci, said this week that Wellness Connection occupies about 3,300 square feet of a 6,600-square-foot building on New County Road.
According to Hawes, a typical grower could expect a yield of about 300 pounds of marijuana annually in a location such as the Thomaston facility, assuming their average patient requires about 1 pound each year. He said the maximum yield for that space would be 500 pounds annually, with an elite grower and high-yield, short-flowering strains.
In July estimates filed with the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, the group said it expected to serve 540 patients and lose $1.75 million. At Hawes’ estimated average, the Thomaston facility wouldn’t be able to supply all needed the product.
“I think that it’s inadequate,” Hawes said of the Thomaston site. “If demand is still estimated to be anywhere near what we were predicting, then it’s not suitable even to start.”
In a prepared statement, John Martins, spokesman for the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, whose Division of Licensing and Regulatory Services oversees the state’s medical marijuana program, said the state has no concern about the facility’s size.
And Lane denied Hawes’ claim that there isn’t enough space there.
“While the Wellness Connection of Maine does not comment on our growing facilities, I can say that we have adequate space to meet projected patient need,” Lane said.
Hawes said he knows the capabilities of the Thomaston site.
He said he found the facility through a Rockland Realtor and held initial meetings with Thomaston Code Enforcement Officer Peter Surek. The site wasn’t intended to be anything other than a dispensary, where patients could buy needed product and accessories.
Hawes said the first site they considered for cultivation was a warehouse off Interstate 95 in Hermon, owned by the Dysart family.
In the summer of 2010, however, the town of Hermon put a moratorium on such facilities until it could enact regulations. So the group then known as Northeast Patients Group focused instead on growing in Portland, he said.
“They just kind of went away,” said Ron Harriman, Hermon’s economic development director.
Northeast wanted to lease a larger space than initially needed and then grow into the site as patient rolls expanded, Hawes said. Harriman said Northeast would have had 30,000 square feet in the Hermon warehouse they were considering.
Hawes estimated they would need 8,000 square feet just to get started. Within two to three years, he said they planned to fill a 15,000- to 20,000-square foot space.
“We thought that it was fiscally irresponsible to move into a location that we knew we were going to have to expand out of within a few years,” he said. “We were going big at the start.”
By the time Hawes stopped working with Northeast in early 2011, he said the group hadn’t secured financing to finalize a lease in Portland.
Hawes said when it became evident that finding financing for a new location could be difficult, he considered propagating, or breeding, marijuana plants at the Thomaston location “as a very short-term Band-Aid” for no longer than a few months.
“We never considered that to be a long-term cultivation site,” Hawes said.
Hawes said he had been voted by Northeast’s board of directors to be the company’s general manager, with an eye on being head of cultivation.
In February, he said Northeast cut off contact with him, leaving him wondering for weeks if he was still working there.
“They just stopped talking to me. They stopped returning my calls and emails,” Hawes said. “They just completely ignored me.”
According to Martins, Northeast notified the state that Hawes was no longer affiliated with them on May 31.
That month, DeKeuster quit her job as New England expansion director for Berkeley Patients Group, the California-based former financial backer of Northeast. She quit one day after she signed a $2 million, never-finalized preliminary financing agreement between Northeast and retired NBA basketball player Cuttino Mobley.
That agreement led to Berkeley suing Northeast on July 6 for repayment of $632,195 in loans. The suit also asked that the court order DeKeuster, of Augusta, to end her association with Northeast Patients Group.
Hawes said he is a friend of Tim Schick, the Maine native who serves as Berkeley’s executive director.
“I think they kind of saw the writing on the wall coming as far as the lawsuit, which was going to be inevitable,” he said.
Between the Mobley agreement and Berkeley’s lawsuit, Mobley was looking to license intellectual property from Berkeley, who responded in good faith, according to a source close to the discussion who declined to be identified because of the pending lawsuit. The source said negotiations lasted until June and also centered around Northeast repaying Berkeley the loans it eventually sued for.
Hawes said after an early meeting, Northeast stopped talking to him.
Martins said Chad Emper runs cultivation now for Wellness Connection. A fall 2009 issue of Universitas, a magazine at Saint Louis University in Missouri, said DeKeuster, an alumna, married Emper that March.
In the tight Thomaston space, Hawes said the only way to yield the amount of plants needed to serve the number of patients anticipated would be to flower many small plants and stack them toward the ceiling.
But Hawes said Maine statutes would dissuade a grower from that tactic, as law limits growers to six plants for every patient.
“Due to the six-plants-per-patient limitation in Maine and due to the fact that Maine defines a plant as a flowering plant, they can’t use that technique,” he said. “They’ll have to have a very healthy vegetative space.”
Meanwhile, a smaller-time Maine grower scoffed at the size of Wellness Connection’s facility.
“It would be an ideal space for a four-caregiver operation,” said Jim Burke, a Lagrange caregiver, which is a state-permitted citizen who can grow marijuana for up to five patients.
Burke is the operator of Care by Cannabis LLC, a collective of three Penobscot and Piscataquis county caregivers, including himself and his wife. Burke said to accommodate 15 patients, he has two floors with a combined 2,000 square feet of space in a retrofitted garage attached to his home, and that footage includes flowering and propagation space.
Wellness Connection cannot grow enough product in Thomaston, Burke said.
“They’re lacking a couple zeroes,” he said.
Calls not returned
McCarrier, the Medical Marijuana Caregivers of Maine board member, said that during the last few months medical marijuana patients who have signed up for product at Wellness Connection’s Thomaston dispensary have been disappointed.
They’ve encountered limits on product ranging from one-eighth of an ounce weekly to one-fourth of an ounce weekly. By state law, patients with medical conditions qualifying for the medical marijuana program are allowed 2.5 ounces every two weeks, which is 1.25 ounces per week.
Martins, the DHHS spokesman, said the state hasn’t heard those complaints.
Lane, the Wellness Connection spokeswoman, confirmed limits on product, but in a statement she framed it as a planned phase as they ramp up product and patient count.
“That is the case right now at this new clinic. We have said from the start that a new dispensary needs to build up their inventory of product based on patient caseload and need,” she said. “It will take some time to incrementally increase our inventory, but we have begun the process and we expect this situation will soon be resolved.”
Charles Wynott, executive director of the Westbrook-based Maine Medical Marijuana Patients Center, tells similar stories of his interaction — or lack thereof — with Wellness Connection. Wynott said he has left multiple messages on Wellness Connection’s main phone line.
“I have called them and said, ‘This is Charlie. I have no money. I need help,’ and I didn’t even get a courtesy call,” he said. “There’s nobody on the other side of the phone.”
“The protocol at the Wellness Connection of Maine is to have new patients book an appointment for their initial visit,” Lane, the Wellness Connection spokeswoman, said in a prepared statement. “While we haven’t received any complaints from patients regarding the scheduling of appointments, our goal is to make this process as seamless as possible and we are working to ensure that happens.”
Wynott said stringent product limits have been not just a problem for Wellness Connection, but most of Maine’s five open dispensaries.
“At all dispensaries, they’re not able to satisfy patient needs,” Wynott said. “The patients aren’t stupid. They’re going to shop around.”
Wynott said the average Maine caregiver sells marijuana to patients for about $250 per ounce. In numbers submitted to the state in July, Northeast said it would sell product for $340 per ounce at their dispensaries.
In Portland, where DeKeuster has said a Congress Street dispensary could open by February, Wellness Connection is planning to have a “welcoming community center,” where patients can network with each other over free tea and coffee.
“Good luck with that,” Wynott said of the pricing. “They better be serving some good coffee.”