Contaminated flower may be getting patients and employees sick
Anne Hassel had high hopes for a new career when she applied for a job serving medical marijuana patients at New England Treatment Access (NETA), a registered medical dispensary (RMD) in Massachusetts. A licensed physical therapist, she believes in the efficacy of cannabis and says that she appreciated how NETA was presented “as having a new business paradigm, one of worker input and responsive management.”
That was then. Now, nearly a year after she quit working at NETA and filed a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) claiming she was regularly exposed to mold via cannabis flower, Hassel mockingly says NETA stands for “Never Ethically Treating Anybody.”
“Mold was an issue at both [NETA’s] Franklin cultivation center and the Northampton dispensary,” Hassel wrote in her complaint to OSHA. The former budtender reported that she “observed powered mildew flower” while trimming cannabis in 2016 in Franklin but was instructed by a supervisor to “cut around it.” She also says that management dunked “marijuana flower into a hydrogen peroxide solution to treat the mold.”
In response to a request for comment, a NETA spokesperson wrote, “Our product is tested for mold, yeast, bacterial and other biological pathogens, by independent laboratories… No product is delivered to the dispensaries that has not passed state testing protocols.” Regarding hydrogen peroxide, the spokesperson offered information that was previously unavailable in the company’s response to regulators: “NETA has been open and public about our use. The [response to Hassel’s OSHA complaint] pertained to our Northampton RMD and would be misapplied when discussing our harvest practices.”
In her May 2017 complaint, in which she detailed her employment as an RMD agent from September 2015 through March 2017, Hassel claimed that she was “not informed” that people were breathing in potentially hazardous mold. She says, and another former employee confirms, that NETA supervisors said the use of hydrogen peroxide to clean moldy cannabis is the “industry standard.” But some experts claim otherwise.
According to Dr. Jordan Tishler, a Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital-trained physician who specializes in cannabis treatment, “Hydrogen peroxide isn’t going to contaminate the flower as peroxides are too unstable to remain. However, they are quite caustic and will react with the plant material. This may change the cannabinoids, as well as general plant material, into God knows what. So, not a great idea. Moldy flower should be tossed.”
Hassel’s complaint, drawn from her experience as a budtender at NETA, continues:
In the dispensary the marijuana flower is kept in bins that are constantly opened in order to weigh the flower in front of the patient. At times while dispensing I would experience allergic reactions including throat irritation. On multiple occasions I observed moldy flower in the bins and when management was approached, I was told to take out the visibly moldy flower but sell the remainder in the bin.
The NETA spokesperson wrote: “Regarding the use in harvest, hydrogen peroxide applied to harvested plant material last occurred more than two years ago to remediate powdery mildew. We are pleased to report that there have been no signs of this issue for the past 18 months at our cultivation facility.”
(Ed. note: Not to be confused, mold and mildew are both fungi, though mold is more invasive.)
Experienced and educated cannabis consumers are concerned about mold in their medicine. They talk about it at conferences and online, and report negative experiences to vendors, hoping for corrections. Patient advocates I contacted for this story said that another Massachusetts RMD, Sage Cannabis, has a record of addressing such a complaint with transparency. Contacted for this story, Sage CEO Michael Dundas emailed:
We had a patient inform us that there appeared to be mold on several buds in an ounce of White Walker Kush. We asked the patient to return the unused portion of the product and immediately began an investigation. We pulled all remaining units from the same batch off the shelf and inspected them. No contaminants of any kind were found.
According to Dundas, Sage additionally took its response a step further:
We also reached out to every patient who had purchased any product from the same batch and informed them of the situation. They were given the opportunity to return the product for an exchange or refund. To my knowledge, none of those individuals reported finding any contaminants.
Sage has been applauded in chat forums and among more learned cannabis consumers for its handling of said complaint. In the case of NETA, OSHA closed Hassel’s complaint without consulting other employees, past or present, or even visiting the workplaces. While NETA responded to the federal agency by denying the presence of mold, stating that it has not used hydrogen peroxide as charged. As proof of its position, the RMD included lab results of tested cannabis marked as mold-free.
I have spoken with several former NETA employees, all of whom confirm the presence of mold as well as hydrogen peroxide used to clean affected cannabis. Said one source: “When I worked in cultivation everyone was getting red rashes. … No ventilation in the room and certainly no one forcing us to wear a mask for safety.” Another ex-employee confirmed the presence of “H2O2” (hydrogen peroxide), posting on Facebook:
I was… a cultivator there at the point when they decided “dunking” [cannabis in hydrogen peroxide] was somehow a good idea. … There’s no way in hell they threw all of that [moldy] crop away. … They prided themselves on “do the right thing” everywhere they go but couldn’t manage to put out a good product because of the lack of care for the environment the crops were growing in.
In September, one of the NETA founders, Kevin Fisher, had a scare related to banned pesticides at a dispensary he co-owns in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. As was reported by the Aspen Times, after “tests by the Colorado Department of Agriculture showed that there was a pesticide called Avermectin Bla found in some of the [dispensary’s] marijuana,” “the Colorado Department of Revenue sent out a public health and safety advisory for some marijuana grown by Rocky Mountain Remedies.”
In response, Fisher denied the allegations. “I know that we didn’t spray it,” he told reporters. “If we sprayed it, we would spray it at all of our grows.” He added, “that product’s not out there. … It hasn’t been sold,” and said the pesticide “might have came from cloned plants that had been properly acquired from a third-party vendor.”
Fisher’s run afoul of the Commonwealth regulatory process as well. As the Daily Hampshire Gazette reported in 2014, “The executive director of the company planning to open medical marijuana dispensaries in Northampton and Brookline resigned over the weekend after misrepresenting his academic credentials in an application to the state.”
Following the incident, NETA announced Fisher’s resignation from his executive director role. But Fisher has had a continued presence at their facilities as a registered agent and consultant, speaking at subsequent employee meetings in Northampton and Franklin.
In an attempt to understand how such an issue can continue unmitigated, I reached out to OSHA. A spokesperson from the US Department of Labor responded to my inquiry about Hassel’s formal complaint, emailing:
The Springfield OSHA Office conducted a non-formal (phone/fax ) investigation. It contacted New England Treatment Access describing the safety and health concerns raised by an employee. It accepted New England Treatment Access’s written response to the complaint regarding hazards alleged by the complainant in the Northampton dispensary and the non-formal phone investigation was closed.
OSHA also noted that the agency “does not regulate or have any jurisdiction regarding the safety of the marijuana product(s) for consumers or the public,” but “is willing to review additional information regarding employee exposure to hydrogen peroxide and mold as a result of work activities in the Northampton dispensary and could consider re-opening the investigation in order to perform an on-site inspection.” Furthermore, the spokesperson wrote: “There is no OSHA standard specific to airborne mold in the workplace,” while “OSHA’s non-formal phone investigations do not normally include an investigation to verify employer statements made in response to a complaint.”
In her part, Hassel has continued to pursue the issue with regulators and has also contacted the Mass Department of Health and the state attorney general. She worries that some former NETA workers are afraid of being blackballed by other dispensaries and that by complaining they could violate confidentiality agreements they signed. Hassel’s not entirely alone in speaking out publicly, though. One other vocal former NETA employee, Gregg Padula, posted his grievance on Facebook:
I personally soaked hundreds of plants in [hydrogen peroxide] as part of my formers employers’ frantic race to mask the powdery mildew enough to get it into the dispensary. The floor was soaked with the strong solution—strong enough to bleach my fingers if my elbow high gloves slipped off. Plants dripping water, strewn all over the ground, then hung back to dry. I have a list of at least a dozen ex-employees who are sick. You can literally taste the peroxide on the flower.
Padula and another former NETA employee, Maggie Kinsella, also spoke about their experiences on a July show of my WEMF Radio program The Young Jurks. They describe an experience in which employees who expressed concerns about their safety were unfairly scrutinized, ignored, and intimidated.
Though NETA has reportedly been unresponsive to employee gripes, there is one case in which management responded to a problem that was covered by the Globe. Last May, reporter Kay Lazar revealed that NETA, among other dispensaries, “placed low-income patients on waiting lists for discounted products—creating delays that run afoul of state law.” And they were “effectively denying those low-income patients the discounts state regulations require for anyone with a verified financial hardship, with no cap on the number.”
Following the Globe report, NETA reportedly honored the discount for all qualified hardship patients.
NETA isn’t the only dispensary operation in Mass with political ties, but its proximity to power is significant. From the start, as was reported in the Globe in 2014, the company employed a patient/medical director who was “a key former DPH staff member,” and “a nurse who helped craft the state’s medical marijuana regulations before retiring from government.”
It may have been good luck or such plentiful connections in high places that helped NETA get over the hurdles formed after Fisher, a founding co-owner, ran into difficulty with his Mass application. In 2014, then-Gov. Deval Patrick said, “If somebody lied on their application, they are not going to get a license.” But when it came to Fisher’s credentials being misrepresented, that rule apparently did not apply. “We’re trying to understand whether, in fact, it was a lie,” Patrick told reporters in 2014. “That’s not clear yet. There’s certainly an inaccuracy, and we’re going to get to the bottom of that.”
In the end, NETA got the green light from the DPH.
Critics of the dispensary who were contacted for this article point to the top of NETA’s food chain. The RMD is owned by recreational cannabis operators with established Colorado grass roots, so to speak, and backed in part financially by Howard Kessler, a financial titan who, according to a Bloomberg business profile, “serves on a number of nonprofit boards in Boston, including Brigham and Women’s Hospital, United Way of Massachusetts Bay, Babson College and Dana-Farber/Children’s Hospital.”
Kessler, a Palm Beach staple who has hosted Hillary and Bill Clinton at his $30 million beachfront estate, has given to the campaign funds of multiple elected pols. According to the Massachusetts Office of Campaign and Political Finance, his contributions over several years include $8,000 to Secretary of State William Galvin, $2,000 to Gov. Charlie Baker, $1,000 to Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito, $3,000 to Treasurer Deb Goldberg, and $1,000 to Boston Mayor Marty Walsh. Other NETA execs have made comparable contributions, spreading money all across the state into the war chests of various influencers.
Also of note, former US Congressman Barney Frank was for a short time listed as NETA’s director of government and community relations—until NETA was approved by then-Gov. Patrick as a finalist for licensure. According to MassLive, “Fisher said Frank served an ‘important internal role’ during NETA’s initial permitting process, and won’t be on staff moving forward.”
Hassel, as well as the other former NETA employees who spoke for this story, fears that she was exposed to a moldy product, as a worker and as a consumer, that negatively impacted her health. She says she paid to have physical evaluations, the results of which she offered: “My heavy metal test[s] very high (3x norm) for lead, high for cadmium.” Last June, she wrote a letter to the DPH:
Two months after beginning to consume NETA products, I began to experience the following symptoms: headaches, sore throat and multiple respiratory illnesses. Once the marijuana concentrates (shatter, wax) were released in 2016, I began consuming them. My symptoms progressed to bloating in my abdomen, nausea, cramps in my GI tract and difficulty sleeping.
Neurological symptoms such as neuropathy (numbness in the toes and ball of my foot) and tetany (spasms) in my calves greatly increased in escalating pain intensity and frequency starting November 2016, and I also began to experience fasciculations (twitching) in my calves when seated in the beginning of 2017.
NETA, meanwhile, is apparently eyeing the legal market. As was reported by the Globe and others, an October 2017 letter, submitted to the state’s Cannabis Control Commission by a law firm representing NETA and other dispensaries, advocated for cracking down on gray market providers, all while asking that existing medical dispensaries get the first access to recreational consumers.
Considering how things have gone for them so far, it’s likely that they’ll get their way.