Collins presses FBI director over Chinese crime gangs behind illegal Maine marijuana grow houses

By Christopher Burns, Bangor Daily News Staff

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine pressed FBI Director Christopher Wray about the ties between Chinese organized crime and the proliferation of illegal marijuana grow houses in the state.

During June 4’s hearing of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Collins called it a “serious problem” and that Maine police are “overwhelmed by the magnitude of the task.”

“Barely a day goes by that our sheriffs don’t lead another operation to close down one of these growing operations,” said Collins, the vice chair of the Appropriations Committee.

She also expressed concern that many of these homes are being rendered uninhabitable by black mold infestations.

Recently police have raided illegal marijuana grow houses in at least three communities in central Maine.

When asked about connections to China, Wray stressed that there are no apparent connections between the illegal marijuana operations and the Chinese government.

“But we are starting to see, as we unpack this more, more ties between a lot of these growing operations and Chinese organized crime,” Wray said.

That marks the first admission at that level of the federal government about the connection between Chinese organized crime and illegal marijuana operations, according to Collins’ office.

A leaked federal government memo, first obtained by the conservative Daily Caller and published last August, estimated that Maine had as many as 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.

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 Brownville, Guilford, Milo and Sangerville in Piscataquis County, to Corinna, Eddington, Holden and Passadumkeag in Penobscot County, to Turner in Androscoggin County, to Canaan, Cornville, Harmony, Madison, Mercer, Norridgewock, Ripley, Skowhegan, Solon and St. Albans in Somerset County, to Jay in Franklin County, to Belgrade, China, Chelsea, Farmingdale and Manchester in Kennebec County, to Jefferson and Whitefield in Lincoln County, to Belmont and Freedom 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 2023. As the year dragged on, police uncovered other large illegal marijuana operations in Dexter, Wilton, Machias, and other communities.

Collins first raised concerns about illegal marijuana grow houses back in June 2022 in a letter to the director of the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency. At the time, law enforcement knew of as many as 30 to 40 such sites in Maine, including in Winterport, where one such home burned after grow lamps and fans overloaded the circuits.

Last month, U.S. Attorney for the District of Maine 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 vowed.

So far, no connections have been found to illegal immigration or human trafficking, with most suspects being either U.S. citizens or lawful permanent residents, according to the U.S. attorney’s office.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency is investigating criminal syndicates running illegal grows in at least 20 states.

On June 4, Wray suggested that Chinese organized crime gangs are settling down in rural communities because these illegal grow houses are cheap to operate and they face less severe penalties here than in other countries.

“So, it makes for an attractive business proposition, if I can speak that blandly about it,” Wray said.

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