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EXCLUSIVE: Illegal Chinese Pot Grows Are Taking Over Rural Blue State And Law Enforcement Isn’t Stopping Them

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Jennie Taer Investigative Reporter
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PORTLAND, Maine — Illegal marijuana grows run by Chinese nationals have sprung up all across the state of Maine, and residents say law enforcement isn’t doing enough to stop their spread.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) identified 270 suspected Chinese illegal marijuana grow operations in the state that could be making an estimated $4.37 billion in revenue, which are often used for more criminal activities or are sent back to China, the DCNF exclusively reported in August. The DCNF visited dozens of properties identified as suspected Chinese marijuana grows by the DHS memo, as well as other locations reported to be possible Chinese marijuana grows by The Maine Wire.

Maine offers marijuana legalization, making it the perfect place for such operations, according to experts and officials who spoke with the DCNF. The lax laws, combined with record illegal immigration to the U.S. under the Biden administration, which has also limited deportations, provide cover to the grows.

“This is a failure I believe of both the state government and the federal government, and it’s time people start taking this more seriously,” Republican Maine State Rep. Austin Theriault, who is vying for Democratic Rep. Jared Golden’s seat in Congress, told the DCNF. “This is a lack of political will, there’s many other areas the government’s not afraid to get involved, but for some reason they’re not willing to put their foot down and start to crack down on some of these illegal operations and I want to see that happen.”

Republican Maine State Rep. Austin Theriault speaks with the DCNF outside a suspected illegal marijuana grow

Chinese nationals who are either legal residents of the U.S. or asylum claims that prevent them from being removed from the country tend to operate such grows, a federal law enforcement source previously told the DCNF. The illicit operations run by Chinese nationals is likely done with the help of the Mexican cartels, who help with money laundering efforts used to obtain the properties, former head of the DEA’s Special Operations Division Derek Maltz previously told the DCNF.

The marijuana from illegal grow houses is also smuggled across Interstate 95, which provides a route all the way to Florida and to other areas of the country for the movement of contraband, cash and illegal aliens, according to the DHS memo.

“So, not only are they providing this unbelievably important service to the Mexican cartels by picking up the cash and doing the money transfers over the banking apps and stuff like that, but they’re using the cash in America to buy land, to buy real estate, to buy property to invest in these grow operations,” Maltz said.

Maine has become ground zero for the illicit pot trade, with hundreds of suspected grow houses dotting its rural countryside. The Maine properties visited by the DCNF had several key indicators that law enforcement officials said were signs of marijuana grows, such as a potent cannabis smell, enhanced commercial-grade electrical systems, heat pumps, propane tanks and blacked-out windows.

Despite the obvious signs of these grows operating in “plain sight,” law enforcement hasn’t busted many of them, Stanley W. Bell, the police chief of Clinton, Maine, told the DCNF.

“I try to stay plugged in, I try to know what goes on, but this didn’t hit anybody’s radar or anything,” Bell said, adding that the suspected illegal Chinese marijuana grows in his area aren’t licensed or registered with the state.

Maine voted to legalize marijuana in the state in 2016, while medical marijuana use has been legal since 1999. In 2020, the sale of recreational marijuana officially became legal, and Maine residents who are at least 21 years old can grow up to three mature plants and 12 immature plants for personal use, according to the state’s Office of Cannabis Policy (OCP).

OCP only has the power to regulate licensed operators in the medical and adult use programs in the state of Maine, the office told the DCNF.

“Unregulated and illicit cannabis operations are threats to the work that OCP does, to the livelihood and financial wellbeing of our licensed and compliant businesses, and to customers and patients in Maine who choose to use cannabis. When OCP uncovers, becomes aware of, or receives intelligence about illegal drug activity in Maine, it works closely with Federal and local partners to determine the best course of action to disrupt and dismantle illegal drug activities in Maine and to ensure the successful prosecution of such activities,” OCP said.

Bell, however, believes the legalization of marijuana has become a hindrance for law enforcement pursuing illegal grow operations, he said.

“I think because marijuana has been legalized in Maine for all these different caveats, retail or medical, it’s just not an interest item. The confidence is low in being able to get a case approved or passed through. Basically, none of us are doing really any marijuana enforcement anymore,” Bell said.

The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is aware of the presence of illicit marijuana grow operations in the state, and the agency’s administrator Anne Milgram briefed Republican Maine Sen. Susan Collins on the issue Thursday. (RELATED: Chinese Nationals Are Illegally Crossing The Border In Record Numbers, New Data Shows)

The DEA didn’t respond to the DCNF’s request for comment.

‘Taking Advantage Of A Small Town’

For years, small-town Maine residents have known about Chinese nationals operating pot grows near their homes. Some neighbors of suspected grow sites said they reported the homes to law enforcement, but said police have yet to shut the properties down.

One rural Maine resident, who wished to be identified as Sandra due to security concerns, said her home had lost power several times due to the extreme amount of electricity her neighbors installed for their pot operation that caused the transformer to blow.

“[They’re] taking advantage of a small town,” Sandra told the DCNF. “They give nothing back, and to be honest, degrade a community that was built by farmers. They make it weird and uncomfortable. Their message is ‘we’re going to use your small town to make big money because you don’t seem to care.’ Nothing good to offer and no respect for culture or sense of well-being.”

In some areas, the grow operations dump trash in the roads. One woman, who asked that she be identified as Kim, said she found marijuana paraphernalia and cigarettes from China in trash bags dumped near her home in rural Maine.

A Maine resident whose work involves knowledge of the power grid told the DCNF, under the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly, that they went from fixing one blown transformer in their entire career to 40 to 50 over the course of a couple of years.

One neighbor described an instance in which the Chinese neighbor demanded an easement for a power line to cross their neighbor’s land to have more robust energy.

‘This Is A Failure’

The DCNF, accompanied by Steve Robinson of the Maine Wire, spoke with several individuals who live at the homes identified by DHS and The Maine Wire as suspected illegal marijuana operations. In order to ensure security, the DCNF and Robinson did not reveal their media affiliations.

At one property in Clinton, Maine, the DCNF and Robinson encountered an Asian woman in the backyard after no one answered the front door of the home, which had blacked-out windows and an overwhelming smell of marijuana. During the encounter, the woman said it was her home.

“Is it a commercial marijuana grow or just recreational?” Robinson asked.

“Just regular,” the woman responded.

In Mexico, Maine, a suspected illegal marijuana grow sits within feet of a daycare, its playground and a school, the DCNF observed. The suspected grow house had blacked-out windows and smelled strongly of cannabis.

Daycare sits across the street from suspected illegal marijuana grow house in rural Maine

Daycare sits across the street from suspected illegal marijuana grow house in rural Maine

Maine requires licenses for cultivation, testing, products manufacturing, cannabis store and sample collector facilities.

The properties the DCNF visited were not registered with the Maine Office of Cannabis Policy, according to public lists of recreational and medicinal licenses.

The suspected illegal grow operations have taken over Maine’s second congressional district, which is currently represented by Golden. Golden, alongside bipartisan members of Maine’s congressional delegation, sent a letter to the Attorney General Merrick Garland in August urging him to shut the illegal enterprises.

“Residences are being taken up by illegal grow operations,” Republican Maine State Rep. Mike Soboleski, who, like Theriault, is running to unseat Golden, told the DCNF. “We could be housing our citizens there and we just don’t have enough.”

Despite the proliferation of Chinese marijuana grow operations across the state, law enforcement has been hamstrung due to cannabis’ legal status, which disincentives enforcement against illegal cannabis operations, Bell told the DCNF.

“I think the biggest deterrent to enforcement is we don’t know where the civil enforcement ends, and criminal enforcement begins,” Bell said regarding confusion over who has jurisdiction to go after the grows.

The Maine legislature is set to consider a bill in 2024 that seeks to target “racketeering by foreign organizations in Maine Cannabis markets.”

“The intention of the bill is to empower law enforcement and prosecutors to go after this scourge that’s infiltrating Maine’s legal cannabis markets. I want to untangle the jurisdictional mess so people know the chain of command,” Republican State Rep. John Andrews, who introduced the proposed legislation, told the DCNF.

“I think a lot of them [law enforcement and prosecutors] are focused on fentanyl and violent crime, so this kind of allows CCP marijuana, illegal grows to kind of slip under the radar, but it’s definitely time for this to stop,” Andrews said.

Golden’s office didn’t respond to the DCNF’s requests for comment.

A spokesperson for the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency said that “as a matter of course, when the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency uncovers, becomes aware of, or receives intelligence about illegal drug activity in Maine, it works closely with Federal and local partners to determine the best course of action to disrupt and dismantle illegal drug activities in Maine and to ensure the successful prosecution of such activities.”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office confirmed it, along with other law enforcement agencies, which know about the alleged operations.

“As previously confirmed, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, as well as our local, state, and federal law enforcement partners, have been aware of the existence of alleged illegal marijuana grow house operations in Maine. Maine is fortunate to have strong partnerships between all levels of law enforcement which regularly coordinate efforts,” the attorney’s office said.

“Mainers can be assured that if illegal business activities occur here, the law enforcement community will always do whatever is necessary and appropriate within the law to respond. In order to protect the integrity and capabilities of any investigations, we decline to provide additional comment at this time,” the attorney’s office said.

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