Maryland’s first licensed medical marijuana grower may now be the first such company to be investigated for using pesticides on its plants.
Three former employees of Stevensonville-based ForwardGro filed sworn affidavits last week with the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission alleging the use of the chemicals. The request for an investigation comes on the heels of a legislative session where some companies successfully lobbied for the state to draft regulations that would allow the use of pesticides.
Currently, there are no pesticides permitted for use on medical cannabis in Maryland.
That’s for good reason, said Ashley Colen Herr, president of the Maryland Ethical Cannabis Association, co-owner of an Eastern Shore dispensary and an opponent of pesticide use on the plants.
“There aren’t any credible studies about what happens if these chemicals are burned,” she said “They don’t know what they are doing to people, and they don’t care.”
Colen Herr and her sister Paige Colen own a Centerville-based dispensary. The sisters were unsuccessful applicants for a growing license. The Maryland Ethical Cannabis Association, a trade group with an unknown number of members, is opposed to the use of pesticides in the state’s medical cannabis program.
Gary Mangum, co-owner of ForwardGro, declined to comment on the allegations, saying the company was working with the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission. He referred questions to a spokesperson who later released a statement.
“Patient advocacy and patient safety have always been and will always be our priority,” Vicki Bendure, a spokeswoman for ForwardGro, wrote in an emailed statement. “Every ForwardGro batch of medical cannabis whether for flower use or further processing was properly tested by an independent testing lab, and we have never had any product fail pesticide testing. This is an attack on our business. We are cooperating fully with the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission. We will provide further comment when able.”
Mangum is a major donor to Gov. Larry Hogan’s campaign, served on the governor’s transition team, and was spotted by a reporter earlier this year leaving Government House, Hogan’s official residence, after a meeting during the 2018 session.
Officials at the Maryland Cannabis Commission did not respond to a request for comment.
Colen Herr said she does not carry products from three companies, including ForwardGro. She said she also discontinued purchasing product from a processor once she learned plants from ForwardGro were being used in the product.
Colen Herr said pesticide residues in processed cannabis medications couldn’t be filtered out and would likely become concentrated along with the medical properties from the plant.
“It’s really scary,” she said.
Colen Herr, in a July 2 email to Joy Strand, executive director of the commission, wrote that the complaints may be the first in the state regarding the use of pesticides.
The investigation comes after complaints were filed by three former employees of ForwardGro alleging that the company used pesticides to deal with mildew on its plants and ordered employees to conceal its use.
Brad MacDonald, who was employed by ForwardGro from April 2017 to June 18, 2018, wrote in an affidavit that he was instructed to spray larger plants and dunk smaller “cloned” plants in pesticides in an effort to control plant diseases, including a “powdery mildew” growing on plants.
MacDonald, in his sworn statement to the commission, said he was ordered to not speak to the compliance officer about “anything to do with the cultivation process or issues surrounding the process, such as the use of pesticides.”
MacDonald added that “code words were devised to conceal the identity of what I was spraying in the greenhouse” including one that was given the name “coffee.”
But MacDonald did eventually bring his concerns forward, saying he had grown “tired of lying.”
That complaint resulted in a number of meetings that included senior company officials, including Gary Mangum, according to MacDonald’s statement.
In one meeting, MacDonald said Mangum denied that pesticides were being used at the facility.
MacDonald submitted six videos he said showed him using the pesticides.
Similarly, two other employees, brothers Brandan and Evan Norris, said they quit their positions at ForwardGro after bringing their concerns about the use of pesticides to company officials, including to the compliance officer.
A law passed earlier this year and signed into law by Hogan calls for the state to create regulations that could permit the use of those chemicals.
In March, Mangum attended hearings on that legislation, and while he didn’t testify he did register with the Senate Finance Committee that he was in favor of the bill and proposed amendments on pesticides.
Paige Colen also appeared at that hearing and in written and verbal testimony questioned the need and safety of such chemicals.
Paige Colen’s written testimony referred to catastrophic crop failures at some growers and “powdery mildew problems.”
“The growers are claiming that they need more time for (market) stability, but in this bill we’re asking for pesticide usage, which leads me to believe that maybe that the growers are unable to grow without extra help like pesticides,” Paige Colen told the committee in March.