January 9, 2012

Doubts sprout on pot outfit

Former Wellness Connection of Maine official criticizes capacity; patients frustrated; so far, though, no state complaints

By Michael Shepherd mshepherd@centralmaine.com
Staff Writer

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 it has 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 dispensary.

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.

Early plans

Hawes said he knows the capabilities of the Thomaston site.

(Continued on page 2)

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