The death of a Trulieve employee at a Massachusetts product manufacturing facility in January may lead to significant shifts within the state’s cannabis industry.
That could include additional industry oversight, momentum for unionization efforts, and perhaps more yet-unforeseen shifts such as the founding of a state-run testing lab to act as a check on privately owned marijuana labs, sources told Green Market Report.
That doesn’t include the still-unclear blowback for Trulieve (OTC: TCNNF) (CSE: TRUL) itself, since there are still ongoing state and federal investigations into the death, and the family of Lorna McMurrey – the Trulieve employee who died – has not yet ruled out legal action against the company, according to media reports.
“We were on the way to that major reform, and as sad as it is, the death of Lorna McMurrey and the response has made that reform not only an inevitability, but has expanded its scope and absolutely expedited the timeline for its implementation,” said Grant Ellis, a policy expert at the Parabola Center for Law and Policy.
Holyoke Ward 5 councilor Linda Vacon, chairperson for the ordinance committee, filed an order Tuesday requesting state permission to inspect large cannabis cultivation and manufacturing facilities in the municipality “to ensure compliance with health and safety regulations for workers,” according to a report on MassLive.
McMurrey, who worked at a Trulieve manufacturing facility in Holyoke, died from “the hazards of ground cannabis dust,” according to a report by the federal Occupation and Safety and Health Administration.
The death was first reported by The Young Jurks podcast in early October. Since then, Trulieve has faced further scrutiny over the incident, including by at least one former employee who alleged to Benzinga that the business lied about having personal protective equipment available for workers.
In a statement on Oct. 20, Trulieve said McMurrey’s death was “tragic,” but defended its record as an employer.
The company said that there had also been incorrect information reported about the circumstances in January when she died, including that she’d been wearing a paper mask, when in actuality the company said she had been wearing an N95 safety mask for “at least a portion of the day.”
The statement further contended that the company notified all proper authorities within 24 hours of McMurrey’s collapsed, including OSHA and and the CCC.
“We stand by our record of providing important and full health protections to the more than 175 workers at the Holyoke facility. Each and every person working there is important to Trulieve,” the company statement said.
“We believe we have demonstrated a safe and healthy work environment, but we will of course work with OSHA and the Massachusetts CCC to address their concerns. We want our employees to know they are safe and protected and that we are open to good ideas about any improvements that are necessary.”
OSHA fined Trulieve $35,219 for a trio of violations, but those were related to communications about hazards and not allegations of an unsafe workplace, Trulieve noted.
The company is contesting all three violations, but the federal investigation is ongoing, as is a state investigation, according to media reports.
Possible Ripple Effects
As for upcoming regulatory changes, Ellis cited the passage of S 3096, which was signed into law by Gov. Charlie Baker in August, which “coincides” with how the state Cannabis Control Commission was planning to revisit existing industry rules, he said.
“State lawmakers and regulators will be engaging in an active conversation to determine what regulatory changes will be made to ensure better oversight of companies like Trulieve,” Ellis said. “If there is a change to statute that is required, I have no doubt … if it does need to happen, it will happen quickly.”
Ellis said McMurrey’s death is a tragic “canary in the coal mine, which reflects the true state of some larger operators in Massachusetts, and what they’re trying to hide from regulators, the public and lawmakers.”
Ellis said he was told directly by a former Trulieve employee that the company’s cannabis products were failing safety tests by independent laboratories for contaminants, and that the business knew about it prior to McMurrey’s death.
“The very first thing that’s going to be looked at is, how is it possible – and I know this for a fact – that Trulieve was failing its test results, its products were failing, right up until this investigation began,” Ellis said. “Its flower products and otherwise were failing for contaminant. How is it that all of a sudden, things changed in November of 2021?”
“Are there labs in the state of Massachusetts that are complacent in passing product that is a threat to public safety? And in turn, will a state-standards laboratory need to be created? Not necessarily to do the testing, but to provide a check and balance, to make sure labs aren’t passing product that is dangerous to the public,” Ellis said, of unanswered policy questions that lawmakers will have to tackle.
Green Market Report was not able to independently verify Ellis’s claims that Trulieve products failed safety testing.
The state Cannabis Control Commission did not immediately respond to a request for further information about cannabis product test results.
A Trulieve spokesman, however, vehemently rejected the implication that product testing failures may have had something to do with McMurrey’s death.
“The statements from a former employee are wildly misleading,” the spokesman wrote in an email.
“In the cannabis industry, as in many industries, products fail tests on a regular basis. What is missing from the anonymous source’s accusation is the reality that when those products fail these stringent tests, as required under Massachusetts law, those products are destroyed,” the Trulieve spokesman wrote. “This is exactly how the system is supposed to work to ensure consumer safety and why we support third party lab testing.”
On the flip side, Boston-based attorney Blake Mensing said he doesn’t foresee a major regulatory shift due to McMurrey’s death, in part because there’s no glaring evidence yet of any misdeed by Trulieve that caused the incident.
“I don’t think there’s likely going to be a huge change. The regulations already say, keep things clean and sanitary for your employees,” Mensing said. “If I had to bet, I don’t think the commission will change its regulations from this particular instance.”
Mensing said he does think that Trulieve may have some legal exposure if McMurrey’s family does decide to sue.
“The standard for review would be very, very different in a civil suit. If they did anything wrong in terms of furnishing personal protective equipment or not allowing sufficient breaks, there could be some traction on the civil side,” Mensing said.
“Frankly, if I were her family, I would sue. But I’m a lawyer.”
Regulations perhaps the problem
Another regulatory issue that could be revisited – and may actually be part of the problem – is a state prohibition on organic pesticides in cannabis cultivation, said Suehiko Ono, the CEO of EOS Farms in Massachusetts.
Ono said he’s not sure what could really change in the regulations themselves to increase worker safety, since his reading is most of the state rules are based on existing OSHA regulations anyway.
But, he said, a big flaw in the Massachusetts cultivation rules is that operators like him are prohibited from using organic products to fight off potential contaminants, such as powdery mildew.
That’s a systemic flaw that actually encourages cannabis contamination, Ono said, and it’s something that should be fixed by regulators.
“You’re forcing the proliferation of yeast and mold for (testing) failure, and then you have to process it to get rid of it. So you are not only forced to allow the yeast and mold to grow, but you’re forced to expose your workers to it,” Ono said.
In addition, Ono said a lot of companies will likely be “scrambling” in the wake of McMurrey’s death to revisit their own worker protection protocols, in part because there are no clear OSHA rules for the entire cannabis industry.
“I have to assume there will be some second order effects from OSHA, coming out of this. At least that’s what we’re anticipating,” Ono said.
McMurrey’s death also gives more heft to the possibility that organized labor, in particular the United Food and Commercial Workers Union, may end up making even more inroads with cannabis workers.
“We’re at the beginning of a big union push across the state,” said Aidan Coffey, an organizing director with UFCW Local 1445. “Ms. McMurrey’s death … has really opened the eyes of a lot of stakeholders in the community.”
Coffey said the UFCW will be attempting not only to organize more workers the way it has in several other states for years, but it will also try to get state law amended to require labor peace agreements for larger marijuana businesses such as Trulieve.
Such agreements are already mandatory in many other state cannabis markets, including California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island.
“We’re optimistic that … we can get this accomplished in the new year,” Coffey said of a new labor peace agreement requirement for marijuana businesses.