The state is taking the unusual step of filing criminal charges against the operators of a Houston cannabis business based on accusations they sprayed potentially toxic pesticides on marijuana plants.
A state environmental crimes prosecutor this week filed misdemeanor charges of pesticide pollution, misuse of pesticide and reckless endangerment against Ron and Lacey Bass and their businesses, marijuana cultivator Calm N Collective LLC and retailer Houston Grass Station LLC.
The charging documents, filed in Palmer on Monday, also indicate plans to charge the couple with falsifying business records, a felony.
Houston Grass Station, located along the Parks Highway, remains open but the state Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office more than a year ago shut down retail sales of cannabis grown by Calm N Collective. A former employee reported the pesticide spraying in October 2019, triggering an investigation by the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.
Ron Bass at the time said one disgruntled employee sprayed the plants and was trying to frame him for it.
The new case marks the first time state prosecutors have targeted a cannabis operation in criminal court, according to Cindy Franklin, the attorney representing the couple, who also says it was employees and not Bass who did any pesticide spraying.
Franklin oversaw Alaska’s rollout of legal marijuana as the head of the Alcohol and Marijuana Control Office before resigning in December 2016. She entered private practice two years ago.
The charges against the Houston operation have been pending before the state Marijuana Control Board for more than a year, which is where any decisions should be made instead of criminal court, Franklin said.
“Every business in this industry should be highly concerned that there are prosecutors sitting there looking for something to prosecute them for, because this is a reach,” she said.
Ron and Lacey Bass had not received a court summons as of Friday.
A spokesperson for the Alaska Department of Law did not immediately respond to questions and said no one was available for an interview Friday.
The case began in October 2019 with the employee report.
An undisclosed number of unidentified former employees told investigators that Calm N Collective’s marijuana plants had mold or fungus so Bass told them to regularly spray them, texting when it wasn’t safe to enter, according to a statement filed with charges and signed by state environmental crimes prosecutor Sophie Stratton. Surveillance footage captured “multiple instances” of employees dressed in Tyvek suits and respirator masks.
Someone using Bass’ email address and credit card bought the pesticides, the statement says.
Franklin says the employee took the credit card and used it to buy the chemicals.
Franklin said the state is going after her clients based on a few vindictive former workers who sprayed the plants because they weren’t doing a good job taking care of then, then blamed Bass.
One former worker in particular “is on a very single-minded mission to bring Ron down,” Franklin said. “He’s been spending all of his time trying to ruin my client.”
There have been no reports of anyone getting sick from the pesticide-sprayed marijuana, she said.
The state document says tests revealed three pesticides sprayed on plants grown by Calm N Collective: Eagle 20 EW, a fungicide not approved in Alaska that’s used on turfgrass, ornamental plants and non-commercial tree fruits and vines; Avid 0.15 EC, a miticide and insecticide for ornamental plants; and Floramite, a miticide for ornamental plants.
Lab results showed four pesticide active ingredients — myclobutanil, kuron, cyfluthrin and thiabendazole — in high concentrations on Calm N Collective’s plants, the document says.
Myclobutanil is a key ingredient in Eagle 20EW that releases toxic hydrogen cyanide and hydrochloric acid gases when heated past roughly 400 degrees Fahrenheit, it says. Disposable lighters burn at about 3,500 degrees.
The case highlights the lack of pesticide testing requirements for marijuana sold in Alaska. Growers are required to get plants tested for potency and some molds, but not pesticides.
Cultivators are, however, required to submit plans that include any pesticides used, which the state says the operation failed to do by only listing two organic nontoxic fertilizers. Retail packages were also not labeled with any pesticides used, as required, and the operation did not disclose additives, as required, to the Marijuana Enforcement Tracking Reporting & Compliance database, state prosecutors say.
Franklin, however, contends that Bass didn’t know the pesticide was applied so he couldn’t report it. She also says not reporting something doesn’t constitute falsifying records.
“The idea that marijuana businesses who file plans are subject to prosecution for what they do or do not put on their plans is a false legal theory,” she said. “It’s alarming for the entire industry.”