State and federal law enforcement agencies have known about the existence of a sprawling network of Chinese-owned marijuana grows in Maine for at least two years.
Yet the sites have continued to operate, for the most part, with apparent impunity.
According to a leaked Department of Homeland Security (DHS) memo, there are nearly 800 Chinese-owned illegal marijuana growing operations in the U.S., and almost 300 of them are located in rural Maine.
In September, DHS sent an unclassified memo to Maine law enforcement agencies asking for their help in collecting intelligence on the sites.
An investigation by the Maine Wire has identified more 100 properties in rural Maine that are active or formerly active marijuana growing operations. The sites were all purchased over the past three years by hundreds of single Chinese men and women from New York and Massachusetts.
Following the leak of the DHS memo, all four members of Maine’s Congressional Delegation called on the U.S. Justice Department to clamp down on the sites.
But Attorney General Merrick Garland has yet to respond to the request in writing.
In town after town, neighbors who have for years complained to the cops about these sites expressed frustration that they continue to operate.
The neighbor of one site in central Maine, a volunteer firefighter, said he had brought his concerns to the local police chief because he wanted to know what he might be dealing with should he need to respond to a fire at the property.
“Am I going to be walking into a meth lab with dangerous chemicals?” he said.
The Maine Wire spoke with current and former law enforcement officials at the local, county, state, and federal level, with most of them asking to speak on the condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.
What emerged was a portrait of uncertainty about how Maine-based law enforcement could crack down on the vast criminal organization.
Local police officers all know where the grows are in their towns. The sheriffs know where the sites are in their counties.
Yet they remain in operation.
Local police said they refer cases they learn about to the Office of Cannabis Policy (OCP), but the OCP told the Maine Wire they refer cases they learn about to local police.
Rumford Police Chief Tony Milligan said his department’s procedure when a marijuana cultivation operation is suspected to be “well outside the limits of the law” is to refer the information to Maine’s Office of Cannabis Policy, the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, or the appropriate federal agency.
“If we encounter criminal violations of the law relating to marijuana, we – again on a case-by-case basis, may seize or consider seizing the marijuana if it is an obvious violation of the law, particularly if it’s apparent felony conduct, and obtain drug prosecutor guidance as to whether or not they are willing or able to prosecute and/or what action to take,” Milligan said.
Several law enforcement officials, including Milligan, said Maine’s decision to legalize recreational marijuana meant that marijuana grow operations — even illegal operations run by foreign organized crime — would not be top priority, as opposed to harder drugs like fentanyl.
“Given the law changes and lack of enthusiasm by society and the judicial system for people to be prosecuted for marijuana offenses, the priority for such enforcement action is not as high as other drug crimes,” Milligan said.
The FBI has been investigating the Maine sites for at least two years.
Former Waldo County Sheriff Jeff Trafton said he was aware of several Chinese-owned marijuana cultivation sites in Waldo County before he retired last year. He had a meeting with FBI agents in 2021, at the FBI’s request, in which he shared information on the locations.
“[The FBI] came to my office and I never heard from them again, but that’s, you know, that’s not surprising,” said Trafton.
“They came to find out what the local law enforcement knew and then they went and did their business from there,” Trafton said.
“The only thing I know is that there are a lot of [Chinese-owned marijuana grows] and I know specifically, we have at least one in the town of Thorndike,” he said.
The Thorndike property is located at 117 Fowler Road.
According to property records, it was purchased by Duoqin Li, 60, of Brooklyn, N.Y., according to Waldo County Registry of Deeds records.
Thorndike residents familiar with the property told the Maine Wire that a vehicle with New York license plates — variously described as either a limousine or a hearse — has frequently been seen arriving and departing the property.
Despite the property in Thorndike having been on law enforcements’ radar for two years, the site remains an active marijuana grow operation, according to a Waldo County resident who reported smelling the strong odor of marijuana near the property within the last month.
So far, in Waldo County and elsewhere, public law enforcement actions related to the properties have been limited.
In Carmel this July, a joint task force led by Penobscot Sheriff Troy Morton resulted in the arrest of four men with Chinese names and the seizure of 3,400 marijuana plants at a massive illegal grow house.
53-year-old Yong Chao Huang, 63-year-old Weizhan Huang, 51-year-old LuMing Chen and 47-year-old Jun Zheng Luo were all indicted on felony charges in September.
The property was purchased in 2021 by TC Made Development, LLC, according to Penobscot Registry of Deeds records. According to Massachusetts Secretary of State records, the company was created in 2020 by Thanh Nguyen of Revere, Mass.
Last year, in Dexter, a routine traffic stop led to the seizure of hundreds of plants at an Acadia Street house owned at the time by Ai-hua Wu, 44, of Staten Island.
Cultivating marijuana for Maine’s adult use program is not allowed in Dexter, according to the Office of Cannabis Policy.
No arrests were made.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney of Maine declined to comment to the Maine Wire for this story, as did the Maine State Police and the Dexter Police Department.
Maine’s not the only state dealing with the problem.
The DHS memo that first revealed the presence of 270 sites in Maine also said there were nearly 800 nationally, with many sites in Washington State, Oklahoma, and California.
Last December, a joint task force took down a grow site in suburban Antioch, Calif., confiscating 9,000 lbs of illegal marijuana worth an estimated $15 million.
Not all of the Chinese-owned marijuana grows are unlicensed, either.
Close to 3,000 of Oklahoma’s nearly 7,000 licensed marijuana farms have been flagged for suspicious activity by law enforcement over the last year, according to a March report in Politico.
Republican lawmakers introduced two bills for the next legislative session that would cause a crackdown on these sites, but it’s not clear whether the Legislative Council will admit them for consideration when they meet on Thursday.