Town officials in northern Penobscot County suspect that out-of-state criminal organizations are illegally growing and trafficking marijuana in their towns, but they’re struggling to determine what exactly they are allowed to do under state laws and local ordinances.
It’s also not entirely clear which law enforcement agency is responsible for cracking down on the illicit cannabis grows, as many small Maine towns don’t even have their own police forces.
Penobscot County Sheriff Troy Morton acknowledged the “high degree” of the criminal activity operating in northern Maine when the Daily Caller first reported on the illicit cannabis cultivation network in August.
“There are hundreds of these operations occurring throughout the state,” Morton said. “It’s upsetting to those who live near these operations, and even those who are following Maine laws and procedures.”
According to a leaked Department of Homeland Security memo, the properties are controlled by Asian Transnational Criminal Organizations, and the proceeds of their criminal endeavors are used to fund narcotics trafficking, human trafficking, and other activities in mainland China.
Since the initial report, a handful of locations have been raided by Maine law enforcement in Wilton, China, Belgrade, and Machias — but there have been no further busts in Penobscot, Piscataquis, or Somerset Counties.
When the Maine Wire visited East Millinocket on Wednesday, a local cop parked in front of the town’s police station was aware of the Chinese-owned marijuana facilities throughout the state, but he insisted that his town had no illegal marijuana sites.
The town’s code enforcement officer, Jason Pelkey, said otherwise.
Town officials have suspected for several months that the old Ideal Recycling facility at the East Millinocket Industrial Park has been transformed into a commercial-scale marijuana grow.
The massive, corrugated metal building was purchased in 2022 by Darian Chen of Whitman, Mass. The building still has a sign up advertising the prior scrap metal business, but the building is no longer being used to recycle old cars and trucks.
Since Chen purchased the property, out-of-state vehicles have been seen coming and going from the property on a regular basis. The vehicles do not park outside, but are quickly driven into the large garage bays, so the property appears to be dormant.
Around the time Chen purchased the facility, locals began complaining to the town about the smell of marijuana emanating from the warehouse.
On Wednesday, the only evidence of activity at the 15,000 square foot industrial building were tire tracks in the snow that showed vehicles had recently entered the large garage bay on the back of the property. The smell of cannabis was faint but detectable in the still, frigid air.
As the town has approved no commercial-scale grows, any non-medicinal grow over 30 plants (or 500 square feet of canopy) would be illegal.
Pelkey is certain that there is an illegal marijuana growing operation in the building, but he has been met with resistance when he has tried to schedule an inspection.
“There’s always an excuse why [Chen] can’t be there for an inspection,” said Pelkey.
Under Maine law, Pelkey is allowed to set foot on the property for an inspection of the exterior, but he’s only allowed to enter the building with the consent of the owner.
Pelkey made contact with Chen four weeks ago over the phone, he said, and initially had a cordial interaction. However, when he said he needed to inspect the interior of the property and indicated that a commercial-scale marijuana grow wasn’t allowed at the location, Chen’s ability to speak English rapidly deteriorated.
On one occasion, Pelkey witnessed a large garage door closing as he drove past. Knowing that someone was at the property, he went and knocked on the door. Though he could hear someone inside, no one answered.
Twelve miles to the east, in Woodville, town officials are dealing with a similar problem.
The old Day’s Lumber building on Woodville Road, right next to the town office, was purchased in 2021 by Ling Xing Chen. Weeks later, the odor of marijuana inundated the area around the property, including the town office building next door.
One neighbor said her bedroom has been often filled with the skunky aroma ever since the new owners arrived.
“I suppose if you come to the Town Office on a nice warm day you can get a contact high from all the stuff going into the air,” said Woodville Selectman Manfred Harriman.
Brand new SUVs with New York license plates come and go from the property on a regular basis, and the property is consuming far more electricity than it ever did as a lumber yard.
“They have two transformers running the place,” said Harriman. “They’ve blown one transformer, maybe two. They caught on fire because they were drawing so much power.”
A few weeks ago, an Animal Control Officer was called to the property after witnesses saw an Asian man beating a border collie with a stick.
When the Animal Control Officer arrived at the property, the man threw the dog over the fence while shouting, “I’m an American, I’m an American, I’m an American.”
A source familiar with the dog’s new living arrangements said it urinates uncontrollably whenever anyone tries to pet it, the unmistakable sign of an abused canine.
Harriman said the town has communicated their concerns to law enforcement, but so far nothing has happened.
In Mattawamkeag, locals have complained about two large marijuana-related operations, one on the Medway Road, a former cedar mill, and another in the former Dr. Carl Trout K-5 elementary school.
Like East Millinocket and Woodville, Mattawamkeag hasn’t approved any commercial-scale adult use recreational facilities, according to the town clerk, so large marijuana cultivation sites would be operating outside of the law.
“At first I thought we had skunks,” said one of the property’s neighbors. He said he had seen his neighbors arrive and depart the property, at first in vehicles with out-of-state plates, but later with Maine plates.
In Kingman, Winn, Springfield, Lee, Argyle, Lincoln, Greenbush, Passadumkeag and more rural Maine towns — illegal marijuana cultivation operations, owned by out-of-state criminal networks, are flourishing with little scrutiny from law enforcement.
The Department of Homeland Security estimates that more than 270 of these locations exist throughout rural Maine. But over the past year, only a handful have been raided by law enforcement.
Even when raids do occur, the individuals apprehended at the illegal grows rarely remain in police custody long.
In Machias, for example, the three Asian men arrested at a 3,000-plant criminal operation received less than $1,000 bail and were free within 48 hours.
The men have court dates in January, but the Machias Police Department isn’t optimistic that they’ll return to Washington County.