US attorney vows ‘strong and sustained’ crackdown on illegal Maine marijuana grows

By Christopher Burns, Bangor Daily News Staff

The top federal prosecutor in Maine has vowed to keep up the crackdown on illegal marijuana operations in the state.

In a May 3 statement, U.S. Attorney Darcie N. McElwee said that more than 40 illegal marijuana operations have been shut down in recent months, while approximately 100 more may continue to be operating in Maine.

“We expect this law enforcement action to continue until the individuals operating the illegal grows come to understand that Maine is not a safe or hospitable place for such activity,” McElwee said.

Since the beginning of the new year, police have been active in busting these large operations, which have been found all over rural Maine, from Guilford and Sangerville in Piscataquis County, to Corinna, Eddington and Passadumkeag in Penobscot County, to Turner in Androscoggin County, to Cornville, Harmony, Madison, Mercer, Norridgewock, Ripley and Skowhegan in Somerset County, to Jay in Franklin County, to Belgrade, China and Chelsea in Kennebec County, to Jefferson and Whitefield in Lincoln County, to Belmont in Waldo County.

These operations received greater scrutiny after the Penobscot County Sheriff’s Office found an illegal marijuana grow house in Carmel, where police seized 3,400 plants and 111 pounds of processed marijuana in late June. As 2023 dragged on, police uncovered other large illegal marijuana operations in Dexter, Wilton, Machias, and other communities.

A leaked federal government memo, first obtained by the conservative Daily Caller and published last August, estimated Maine has 270 large-scale illegal marijuana grows connected to organized crime groups in China. The memo’s authors noted that the money may be used to further crime in the U.S. or be sent back to China. These operations generate an estimated $4.37 billion in revenue.

“The possibility that organized criminal enterprises with alleged ties to China are using Maine properties to profit from unlicensed marijuana operations and interstate distribution makes it clear that there is need for a strong and sustained federal, state and local effort to shut down and thoroughly investigate these operations,” McElwee said.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, which will reportedly propose reclassifying marijuana as a Schedule III substance, is investigating criminal syndicates running illegal grows in at least 20 states. That revelation from U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland came in response to questioning by U.S. Sen. Susan Collins during an Appropriations Committee hearing in mid-April.

Maine’s congressional delegation has twice pressed the U.S. Justice Department to crack down on these illegal marijuana operations, most recently on Jan. 25, 2024.

“We applaud Maine law enforcement for their continued efforts to investigate and shutdown these illegal operations, and we encourage the Department of Justice (DOJ) and other federal partners to provide additional support for these efforts. These illegal growing operations are detrimental to Maine businesses that comply with State laws, and we urge the DOJ to shut them down,” Collins, U.S. Sen. Angus King and U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree and Jared Golden said in their January letter to the attorney general.

On May 3 McElwee said that investigations to date have found no connections to illegal immigration or human trafficking. McElwee said those people who have been arrested are U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents from New York, Massachusetts, and other states.

“From what we know now, the individuals working in these illicit grows appear to be doing so willingly. Human trafficking is a heinous crime that our Office takes seriously. Any evidence of human trafficking will be thoroughly investigated and if discovered, vigorously prosecuted,” McElwee said.

McElwee also cautioned that Mainers shouldn’t assume someone is involved in a “criminal enterprise” because of their surnames or nationality.

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