State Investigation Reveals 200+ Medical Marijuana Plants Grown at Hemp Farm But Dispensary Regulators Silent
According to the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Farms, and Markets, dozens of different Vermont hemp plant samples were tested in 2018 in response to complaints about plants suspected of being high in THC, the psychoactive component in the cannabis plant.
However, only one of these tests resulted in a THC level that was significantly higher than the .3% legal limit that separates legal industrial hemp from illegal, high-THC cannabis (commonly known as marijuana). Instead of .3% THC, one of the plant samples tested over 21% THC, 70 times over the legal limit and far outside the margin of botanical variability.
The location of the documented violation was at one of Vermont’s most famous farms, Pete’s Greens, in the center of the Northeast Kingdom, in Craftsbury. However, Pete Johnson – farmer and President of Pete’s Greens – received the plants from Champlain Valley Dispensary (CVD), the state’s largest medical cannabis dispensary, with the understanding that they were legal industrial hemp plants.
On October 3, following an anonymous tip, the Agency of Agriculture visited Pete’s Greens to interview employees, inspect the registered hemp plants, and test samples of plant material registered as hemp. While the majority of the estimated 230 hemp plants had been harvested the day before the investigators arrived, enough plant material remained on site for the investigators to recover and test.
The Agency of Agriculture’s testing of the two samples of plant material found at Pete’s Greens revealed “non-detectable” amounts of CBD and 2.7% and 21% total THC, respectively; nine and 70 times the legal THC threshold for industrial hemp.
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In an official statement given to the Agency of Agriculture during the 2018 investigation, as well as follow up reporting from Heady Vermont staff on May 1, 2019, Johnson and a former employee — whose name has been redacted from the report included here — both confirmed that they had been assured they were growing legal hemp and not THC cannabis.
In an interview with Heady Vermont on May 1, the former Pete’s employee said, “In the scheme of our farm and business, the hemp was a tiny research project — we literally had no experience cultivating cannabis and thought this small test plot would be a good chance for Pete to learn how it grows. We took the dispensary people at their word that we were growing legal CBD hemp.”
Heady Vermont staff reached out to CVD Executive Director Shayne Lynn for comment about the report and to ask about knowledge of the plants grown at Pete’s Greens.
Lynn responded via email, saying, “We are aware of the report and have fully cooperated with our state regulators.”
According to internal emails obtained by Heady Vermont, and confirmed by multiple individuals directly involved, on November 20, 2018, the Vermont Agency of Agriculture informed the Vermont Department of Public Safety (DPS) about the dispensary’s alleged involvement and the 21% THC test result.
When contacted by Heady Vermont to confirm the report, Cary Giguere, director of Plant Health & Human Resource Management at the Agency of Agriculture, stated, “The Agency of Agriculture strives to preserve the integrity of Vermont’s hemp program. This includes responding to all complaints of non-compliance in a timely manner.”
He added that complaints of non-compliant, or “hot” crops, are not unusual. “We had multiple complaints of non-compliance over the course of the last growing season. All of those cases were investigated within 48 hours of receiving the complaint,” Giguere said.
“All but one of those cases proved to be hemp after the samples were tested at the Vermont Agriculture and Environmental Laboratory.”
The consequences for the sample that turned out to be high in THC? “The instance where it was discovered the crop was not hemp was referred to the Department of Public Safety for enforcement. This case was then closed by the agency,” Giguere said. “Growers found not to be in compliance jeopardize their ability to apply for hemp licensure in future years if the non-compliance was found to be other than negligent.”
The Agency of Agriculture is responsible for regulating the industrial hemp program, while the Department of Public Safety oversees the Vermont Medical Marijuana Registry.
Underlying the questions of either CVD or Pete’s Greens’ knowledge of plant THC content is the question of regulatory responsibility.
Both by phone and email, Heady Vermont Editorial staff have reached out to the Department of Public Safety to ask what — if any — enforcement actions DPS took upon learning of the illegal hemp crop from the Agency of Agriculture.
As of publishing time, Heady Vermont has yet to receive a response from that and other questions about the incident; however, we will update this story if a response is provided.
In Craftsbury, Johnson first learned that something might be amiss with his would-be hemp crop on October 3, 2018, when employees from the Agency of Agriculture came to his farm, following up on an anonymous complaint to the agency, dated October 1, 2018, alleging the crop had levels of THC over the legal limits, and were specific medical cannabis strains.
While Johnson was unaware of the plants’ genetics, at least two former CVD employees — who were employed by CVD and present at the time of this incident — knew the plants picked up by Johnson at the dispensary facility were medical cannabis, containing well above the legal limit of THC for hemp. At least one of those former employees initiated multiple complaints, first to the Department of Public Safety, and then to the Agency of Agriculture.
Editor’s Note: In reporting this story, Heady Vermont spoke to — and quotes below — two former CVD employees on the condition of anonymity after verifying their identities; neither are presently involved in competing medical cannabis businesses. We do not take anonymity lightly and invite journalists to email us directly with questions related to our internal editorial process or the sources of information for this story.
On October 2, 2018 — after the complaint had been filed with the Agency of Agriculture, but before the inspection at the farm took place — several CVD employees made the 45-mile, hour-plus trip from CVD’s headquarters in Milton to the Craftsbury farm and harvested the plants, which Johnson’s signed statement indicates numbered approximately 230.
However, during the pre-inspection harvest, plant remnants were left behind both on the farm road and in the greenhouse. Agency of Agriculture investigators visiting the next day found — and photographed — samples of at least two of the plants, containing both leaves and buds, including an uprooted plant marked with a tag. The sample was bagged and sent to the state laboratory for testing.
On November 20, 2018, the Agency of Agriculture contacted Commissioner Thomas Anderson at the Department of Public Safety, sending him the Agency of Agriculture’s initial report, including chain of custody information, the complaint intake form, testing results, and “additional photographs from an alleged complaint of diversion from one of the state’s dispensaries.”
To date, no action on this matter has been taken by the Department of Public Safety.
One former CVD employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to fear of retribution, said that they were present in July 2018 when Johnson came to the dispensary to pick up the 230 cannabis plants, which the former employee knew to be medical cannabis, but which Johnson believed to be legal hemp plants.
The former employee also said that the strains given to Johnson “were Critical Mass and Sweet and Sour Widow,” and that they were tagged according to their initials. In the official investigation documents, the Agency of Agriculture identifies the plant tag as, “CM 45”, which the former dispensary employee who witnessed the transaction says was an abbreviation for “Critical Mass.”
The former employee also said that the strains given to Johnson “were Critical Mass and Sweet and Sour Widow,” and that they were tagged according to their initials.
When pressed to be identified publicly, the former employee refused, citing fear of reprisal and lawsuit saying, “current and former employees have been threatened with lawsuits and have been both discouraged and humiliated by management when raising concerns.”
A second former CVD employee, who also requested to remain anonymous, has affirmed that CVD knew it was transferring high-THC medical cannabis plants to Pete’s Greens.
Both of those former employees expressed that the frustration that led them to come forward was a question of the inability of the state to perform its regulatory functions.
“CVD has done some really unethical things because they don’t fear DPS and they’re not following the laws,” said the first former employee. “This doesn’t bode well for the industry going forward. But,” they continued, “ultimately, the effort shouldn’t be to bring them down, as much as to make them accountable to the laws that they agreed to in the first place. The first priority should be patients.”
When visited by Eli Harrington of Heady Vermont on May 1 to confirm the story, Johnson confirmed that he’d had a few “preliminary discussions” with CVD about being a grow site for medical cannabis in the future. But, he says, that was a “long range discussion” and as the growing season approached last year, they offered to provide hemp plants for him to grow in his greenhouse as a trial.
No financial terms with CVD were specified, but Johnson felt the project was more about “exploration.”
Johnson had never grown any form of cannabis before, and felt that growing hemp for CVD was “worth gaining experience.” No financial terms with CVD were specified, but Johnson felt the project was more about “exploration.”
Carl Christianson, an owner and operator at the analytical lab Northeast Processing notes that “when I see the data presented of a cannabis strain testing at 21% Total THC, there are two likely explanations for that data. Either the strain being tested was marijuana, or there was a mix-up of the samples in the lab.”
“Any lab,” says Christianson, “should have documentation around the chain of custody, which should rule out a mix-up and would suggest that the data being shown is from a marijuana varietal. It is unlikely that verified hemp genetics would yield results like this.”
When asked why they were coming forward to report this violation, the first former CVD employee said, “[Farmers] are trying really hard to make sure they’re compliant as they enter into this new industry. In a lot of cases, they’re trying this out to save the farm. It’s totally unfair that a MMJ dispensary took advantage of the hemp program, and it feels like it was largely ignored by the state … DPS is doing nothing and it’s just wrong.”
NOTE: The images in this article were taken by the Agency of Agriculture investigator on October 3, 2018 and included in the official report, which is available below in its entirety – though some employee names have been redacted to protect the individuals’ privacy.
Editors’ Note: This story was reported, edited, and written with contributions and information from multiple Heady Vermont staff members, including Eli Harrington and Monica Donovan