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Nearly one year since the first legal, adult-use cannabis sale was made, there are now 33 retail stores open around Massachusetts.
So far, state regulators have issued 227 provisional and final licenses to retail, cultivation, cannabis manufacturing facilities and independent testing laboratories. Before — and even after — licenses are issued, those facilities must be inspected by the state.
'Keeps Everyone On Their Toes'
On a Tuesday morning in October, two CCC inspectors pull up to the Sira Naturals Cultivation and Manufacturing facility in a pair of gray, unmarked crossover SUVs. The only giveaway? The vehicles have official state license plates.
This scene plays out nearly every day as the 15 inspectors from the Cannabis Control Commission fan out across Massachusetts to ensure everything at the various retail shops, grow facilities, manufacturing plants and independent labs is operating within regulation.
On this particular day, the two inspectors arrive at the metal building deep inside a Milford industrial park. Company officials know the inspectors are coming, and that they have a WBUR reporter and photographer in tow, but announced visits aren't always the case.
"Sometimes we do what we call an 'unannounced inspection,' " says Patrick Beyea, the commission's director of investigations. "We try to mix those up, so they don't know we're coming.
"That's a good way to ensure compliance — [it] keeps everyone on their toes," he adds.
Beyea and his associate, Nick Millen, are let right in as soon as they show the Sira employee manning the front door their Cannabis Control Commission ID badges.
(WBUR photographer Jesse Costa and I must first show our driver's licenses and sign a guest log. We're issued temporary visitors badges that must be displayed at all times.)
Once inside, the inspectors are brought into a conference room. This helps the inspectors put their heads together, Beyea explains, to talk strategy — and maybe even put on some gear.
"In this case, since we're going in the cultivation area, we're going to have to suit up in protective clothing so we don't bring any contaminants into the cultivation area," Beyea says.
While in the conference room, Millen downloads data from METRC, the seed-to-sale tracking system cannabis businesses must use to keep the CCC fully informed about their inventories. Beyea says Millen will spot check random grow rooms to make sure every plant at the facility is accounted for and properly listed in the system.
Each plant has a unique radio frequency identification, or RFID tag. Millen will use a handheld scanner to locate each plant, and electronically check it off his list.
Beyea and Millen are led around by Sira's president, Michael Dundas, who is familiar with the drill.
"I've been through this process enough [that] it's not too nerve-racking for me," says Dundas as the inspectors and reporters don their protective clothing. "We put a lot of attention to compliance down here. But, for our teams, sure. I think our leads are always a little stiff when they see inspectors come walking through, as well they should be."
On the walk to the cultivation area, Beyea and Millen take note of various things. Are the doors locked and secure? Do employees have their commission-issued badges prominently displayed? Are there enough security cameras in place, and are they capturing unobstructed views?
A locked cabinet in a hallway catches Beyea's attention. He asks Dundas to have it opened.
"If we see a cabinet like this, we'll take a look to see what's inside just to make sure there's no prohibited chemicals on site," says Beyea. "A big concern is, is people could be using pesticides. So it's pretty much a normal procedure for us to stick our heads in cabinets just to see what they have hanging out in there and ask them questions."
Once the inspectors are satisfied that there's nothing prohibited in the cabinet, the attention turns to a grow room where more than 300 cannabis plants are maturing under artificial light.
Dundas and his team wait out in the hallway as Millen, who has a background in commercial cultivation, focuses his attention on the plants.
"So we're going to start scanning our RFID tags," explains Millen. "Typically, what we will do is go down every single row. You can see this is very dense canopy in here. So, occasionally, you will get some foliage that will block the RFID signal. Just to be thorough and make sure we are able to account for every single METRC tag that is in here, we go down every aisle."
While his scanner counts the plants, Millen visually inspects them for potential problems.
"What we usually look for when we do — whether it's a flower or a vegetative room — is we'll look for things like powdery mildew, detritus, evidence of pest damage, whether it's an epidemic or if it's just a small issue," says Millen.
In this particular room, Millen notes the plants are all healthy. But in the next room, he spots a parasitic fungus known as powdery mildew on some leaves. If not controlled, the white mold can destroy a plant. The powdery mildew Millen sees doesn't appear to be a big problem, but still, he wants to speak with Sira's head grower Alison Figucia.
"As far as things like powdery mildew are concerned, how do you guys go about [treating it?] Is it a preventative thing?" queries Millen.
"We do preventative sprays, and that helps to keep it down a lot," answers Figucia. "But we do run into a little bit, and then we just manually pull it off."
Once they're done inspecting the grow rooms — and after taking a peek in yet another locked cabinet in a hallway — Beyea and Millen return to the conference room to remove their protective clothing and meet privately to compare notes.
Beyea ticks off items from a paper checklist, and Millen generates an inspection acknowledgement form. They call Dundas back to deliver their findings.
"Mike, good news. We didn't see any deficiencies of our regulations," Beyea tells Dundas, who lets out an exaggerated sigh of relief. "This place looks great. ... The plants look great. The plants look very healthy."
Had the inspectors found deficiencies, the licensee would be given 10 days to fix the problems or face possible sanctions.
Beyea notes that while his team keeps close tabs on legal cannabis businesses in Massachusetts, inspections don't take place in the illicit market.
"That's why we we hope people will support the legal market, because you are getting a product that's tested. We know it's safe, and you don't get that from the illicit market," says Beyea. "So, by all means, we want people to use the legal means of obtaining marijuana."
Sira Naturals, as well as all state-licensed cannabis businesses, can expect another visit from an inspection team sometime in the next 60 to 90 days. They may get a heads up, or it might be a surprise, and the inspectors want to keep it that way.
This segment aired on November 17, 2019.
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