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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Cheney marijuana grower scrutinized for failed bacterial test amid legal tussle over ownership

A dried marijuana leaf awaits testing at Trace Analytics lab in Spokane in this March 2016 photograph. Testing of plants grown by Sweetwater Farms, a large-scale producer in Cheney, found traces of bacteria exceeding state standards last month. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Behind a Cheney marijuana grower’s failed bacteria test administered by Washington’s largest legal pot shop is an ongoing feud between owners of one of the county’s largest legal cannabis businesses.

One strain of marijuana grown by Sweetwater Farms, a large-scale producer and processor that has sold more than $5.3 million worth of the drug since entering the legal market in 2015, tested positive last month for a level of bacteria commonly found in fertilizers and dung that is 16 times greater than allowed under state regulations. The business said the test results are reflective of its organic practices, while a business partner who tipped off state regulators to the potential violations said she’s a whistleblower attempting to protect consumers.

The dispute is part of a lawsuit filed in November in Spokane County Superior Court. In the meantime, retailer Uncle Ike’s has pulled the variety of cannabis, Sour Tsunami #3, from the shelves of its stores in Seattle.

“If you did buy this product, I’m not going to say it’s safe, but you’re not going to keel over and die if you smoke it,” said Tobias Coughlin-Bogue, a former journalist-turned-program director of Uncle Ike’s running its testing program. The test showed excessive levels of bacteria, but no evidence of harmful pathogens including E. coli and salmonella.

The lab Medicine Creek Analytics ran a subsequent test of a different strain of Sweetwater’s marijuana, Peaches & Diesel, late in November that was well below the threshold for the same bacteria. The results of both tests were posted on Uncle Ike’s website, part of a 3-month-old program the retailer describes as quality assurance for its cannabis. If a strain of flower or concentrate fails a randomly selected test of Uncle Ike’s inventory, it is removed from the shelf and another product from the same producer is tested. Two failures, and the producer is barred from continuing to sell on Uncle Ike’s shelves.

The Sour Tsunami #3 strain is sold in at least one local retail shop, Spokane Green Leaf, according to the online marijuana resource Leafly. Kaitlin Walsh, a manager at Green Leaf, said Tuesday afternoon the flower strain wasn’t particularly popular because it is high in cannabidiol (CBD) not tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Those who smoke the flower are generally recreational users, who prefer higher THC levels, Walsh said. Those seeking high CBD strains for medicinal or other purposes often choose different products.

“We are concerned about pesticides,” Walsh said, but the Sweetwater results don’t show impermissible levels of chemicals. The store has also not received a voluntary recall order, Walsh said, noting the shop only had six units left on the shelves and the flower wasn’t harvested recently.

Coughlin-Bogue, who covered analytic testing of the drug for the Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger before landing his gig with Uncle Ike’s, said the bacteria limit was more cautionary than anything else, and while the bacteria commonly detected in the lab test can be associated with feces, that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s what occurred with the Sweetwater batch.

“It’s present in a lot of organic fertilizers,” Coughlin-Bogue said, noting many marijuana growers use fertilizers made with bat guano because of its high levels of nitrogen.

“If you’re worried about manure, don’t smoke weed,” he said.

Ed Cohen, the majority owner of Sweetwater Farms, said the posting of the Uncle Ike’s test results created the mistaken impression that its plants had tested positive for prohibited pesticides. The test did show the presence of carbaryl, an insecticide that has been known to be found in small quantities in water and soil. But the levels were well below allowable limits established by state regulators.

“We know that we’ve got bacteria in our soil, that’s what an organic farm does,” Cohen said. “We’re not spraying or using synthetics, which is real easy to do.”

But there have been alarms raised by Sweetwater’s practices, according to a lawsuit the business filed against Victoria Robinson in Spokane County Superior Court in November. Robinson, in court filings, alleges she’s being pushed out of the legal marijuana business she started in 2013 and that she’s being retaliated against for raising concerns about the finances involved in moving the company from Airway Heights to Cheney in 2017, contamination of plants with tainted water and tax issues.

In response, Sweetwater has specifically denied each of the claims, suggesting that any contamination occurred when a water filtration system was plugged. According to the lawsuit, Robinson was in charge of quality control for the company. She was cleaning the plants before lab testing, though not at the direction of Cohen, his lawsuit says.

Robinson’s attorney, Lisa Dickinson, said there would be additional filings in the case that would support her client’s argument.

“We’re in litigation, and I think my client’s going to come out fine,” Dickinson said.

There are also allegations that Robinson withdrew unauthorized funds from a shared credit union account. Robinson said she was drawing her pay for dealing with the plant contamination issue in September. She also alleges she’s being forced out of the company after leaving to shutter her own medical marijuana business in 2015, in the midst of state laws merging the recreational and medicinal markets.

Cohen said the testing issue was unrelated to the lawsuit and declined to comment on specifics about the litigation.

The complaint includes allegations that Robinson made the state’s Liquor and Cannabis Board aware of potential compliance violations in October via email. Brian Smith, a spokesman for the state agency, said Monday there was no history of enforcement against Sweetwater for violations of state policies governing cannabis growers, but there was an open investigation into the farm. Smith said he couldn’t discuss the details of an ongoing investigation.

A hearing in the lawsuit is scheduled for Jan. 4.