Stevensville cannabis producer ForwardGro has been ordered to pay $125,000 in fines, toss out all cannabis products made before May 31 and remain under probation for the next two years after a state investigation found the company used unauthorized pesticides on the weed it was growing.
The investigation, the results of which were published yesterday in a consent order, also found the company failed to make sure employees who sprayed pesticides or were exposed to them used proper safety equipment, and that the grower, one of 14 authorized in Maryland, failed to properly track some of the plants in its building using video surveillance back in August 2017.
Beyond the aforementioned sanctions, the state has also forced the company to appoint new leadership. Gary Mangum, a ForwardGro co-founder who was also a top donor to Gov. Larry Hogan’s campaign and a former member of the governor’s transition team, has replaced Michael McCarthy as CEO. The company has been ordered to hire a new head grower within the next three months.
McCarthy stepped down after a settlement meeting between ForwardGro and the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission on Nov. 8. ForwardGro said in a release that Mangum has previously not been a part of day-to-day operations at the cannabis cultivator.
ForwardGro’s probationary period will entail “enhanced inspections” by the commission, monthly checklists showing it’s staying compliant with state rules and the development of new procedures for logging pesticide sprays, security and more.
The company said in its release that it will also have more frequent internal audits, improved staff training on state regulations and company procedures, and “enhanced reporting tools for employees to report non-compliant activities.”
“We understand that we fell short of the expectations that we placed on ourselves related to compliance and that are set forth in state regulations,” Mangum said in a statement. “We must and will do better—for our customers, patients, industry, and our employees. We are deeply committed to instituting the changes necessary to grow consistent, high-quality medical cannabis in Maryland. We have learned from this experience and are using the lessons learned to build a stronger company for the future.”
The probe, which began with allegations from former ForwardGro employees first reported by The Sun in July, determined the company used 15 pesticides as “crop protection agents.” The consent order’s findings of fact say “powdery mildew and unwanted insects were problems” at the grow facility. While six of the pesticides were approved for use by the MMCC in early July–around the same time the ex-employees filed their complaint–none had been permitted when ForwardGro was already using them, the consent order says.
In all, state investigators interviewed more than 17 current and former ForwardGro employees, including managers and the owners. The Maryland Department of Agriculture took samples from the grow house on July 3 and July 9 during inspections, the consent order said.
In October, the state placed an administrative hold on ForwardGro products being sold at Maryland’s dispensaries, meaning retailers had to take them off the shelves. ForwardGro said at the time that it would comply with an investigation. Its owner had previously denied the allegations made by former employees to The Sun during the summer.
In its release, the company said, “From the beginning, all ForwardGro product available for sale at dispensaries and to processors has passed rigorous pesticide testing.” The grower is now posting all certificates of analysis, obtained via state-approved testing labs, on its website.
The company also noted that “no ForwardGro products were found to pose any known threat to patient safety,” though under the terms of the consent order, it’s still offering refunds on any buds and pre-rolled joints that were sold before July 1 and are still sealed.
To that first point, the state has put out a public health statement that says in part, “The possible health impact of consuming cannabis products containing unapproved pesticide residues is unknown,” and advises consumers to contact their physician or registered provider with questions.
Amid all of this change and punishment for ForwardGro, the state’s months-long quarantine on the grower’s products has now been lifted, meaning it can once again do business in Maryland—albeit, under heightened scrutiny from regulators.
ForwardGro is one of 14 licensed cultivators in Maryland. The state also has 14 approved processors and more than 70 operating dispensaries. Around 30 other dispensaries are pre-approved but have yet to open, as of Dec. 10.
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