CARMEL, Maine — A former chicken barn near a few homes at an intersection in this small town off Interstate 95 looks nondescript until you take a closer look.
An ancillary utility pole carried 800 amps of electricity into the building, more than four times what the average home uses. Heat pumps are stationed on one side. A neighbor told a reporter last month they often saw cars from New York and New Jersey but rarely saw people outside.
That was before the Penobscot County Sheriff’s Office raided 1123 Main Road in late June, seizing 3,400 plants and 111 pounds of processed marijuana and arresting four men. While the raid was widely reported at the time, the court file reveals a bigger picture.
A Cantonese-speaking man named Weizhan Huang, 59, of Quincy, Massachusetts, took responsibility for the operation, saying he rented it from a friend and put $900,000 borrowed from friends and family into the operation, according to a summary of his police interview.
Huang cryptically told police “he is going to be dead,” hinting at a sinister motive behind the suspected Chinese-linked marijuana grows that have cropped up in rural properties, including ordinary homes, over the past two years.
Maine has 270 of these types of illegal grows that could be worth $4 billion altogether, according to a federal memo leaked to the Daily Caller, a conservative news outlet that published it in August. It said the money from the properties may be used for other crimes or sent back to China, heightening concern at the national level over these kinds of operations.
The problem is only beginning to emerge nationally. Marijuana is legal in Maine, but large-scale growing is only legal within the regulated adult-use and medical markets. Selling across state lines is illegal. Other states, including Oklahoma, California and Oregon, have reported large-scale Chinese grows, many of which have suspected links to crime syndicates.
Many large questions are unanswered, including if any one person is running the scheme or where the money is coming from and going. What is clear is that growers here appear to be choosing small towns near highway networks with little ability or appetite to check them.
In Somerset County, Norridgewock suspects it has 10 grows, and Town Manager Richard LaBelle read off specific addresses to a reporter. Yet he admitted that he had not given them to the police because his town has bigger problems with drugs like fentanyl that are killing people and are associated with violent crimes.
“To be quite candid with you, marijuana is the least of our problems in southern Somerset County right now,” he said.
Attorney General Aaron Frey’s office is aware of six people being prosecuted in relation to these kinds of cultivation operations, at least five of whom are Chinese nationals, Christopher Taub, the No. 2 prosecutor in the office, said. That includes the four in Carmel and two others charged in different areas of the state.
“Our motivation for prosecuting these cases is the same as our motivation for prosecuting other illegal cultivation cases — ensuring that marijuana is cultivated only through the established legal process and is subject to appropriate state oversight,” Taub said in a statement.
Federal officials appear to have been looking into this for more than a year. After Dexter police detained a Chinese man in March 2022 after a traffic stop, court records show that officials from Homeland Security Investigations and the U.S. Border Patrol came in to assist because they had been conducting a probe into Chinese marijuana trafficking.
Pressure is building. After the memo was leaked in August, Maine’s congressional delegation wrote to the Justice Department urging it to shut down illegal grows. U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican, and Rep. Jared Golden, a Democrat from the 2nd District, redoubled their calls after the conservative Maine Wire reported on suspected grows last week.
U.S. Attorney Darcie McElwee’s office has asked police across the state to share information on these operations and convened at least one meeting with prosecutors on the subject, according to R. Christopher Almy, the district attorney in Penobscot and Piscataquis counties.
“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,” McElwee said in a statement last month. “In order to protect the integrity and capabilities of any investigations, we decline to provide additional comment at this time.”
In Carmel, police got involved in October 2022 after a complaint from a neighbor of the Main Road property was relayed to them by a local official who said cars from two other suspected grows in the town were showing up there. Town Manager Kevin Howell declined comment.
The investigation yielded documents from Central Maine Power Co. showing that power use skyrocketed at the property after service was upgraded in May 2022. The power bill was only $681 the month before, but it grew to nearly $6,900 that December. Police dug through trash this past June, finding marijuana clippings and evidence of growing supplies.
Those items, among other pieces of evidence, led a judge to authorize the search warrant served in June. Two of the three men arrested alongside Huang talked to police, saying they were from New York City and that Huang had hired them to work at the growing operation.
All of them posted bail. It is unclear where Huang is. Will Ashe of Ellsworth, who is listed as his lawyer, did not respond to repeated calls and emailed questions.
The Dexter case began with a Chinese male suspect stopped for speeding. In a report, the officer wrote that the man did not speak English, his hands were “visibly shaking” and he had an active driver’s license and registration in Massachusetts.
Upon questioning, the man alerted police to 43 pounds of processed marijuana in garbage bags in the back of the vehicle. He also had $1,560 in cash. In an interview, police said 39-year-old Ruifeng Chen of Boston told them he had met someone in that city’s Chinatown who offered him $15 per package of marijuana to bring the product back from Maine.
He said he got to Dexter by following a vehicle from Boston to a Dexter side street. Once he was there, he said the first vehicle left, then a van pulled up, put marijuana in Chen’s vehicle and left, he told police, according to court documents. But a police review of traffic footage showed he wasn’t following anyone. His vehicle had also been in the area in late 2021.
All the Maine criminal cases are still active. Dexter police Chief Kevin Wintle refused to discuss many details of the case, but he said it would be “fair to say” local police need a higher level of response to deal with the issue. Almy, the prosecutor in the region, offered a blunt assessment of how the grows have quietly taken root.
“You find a place in rural Maine, buy the house and just bring everything you need in there to grow what you need,” he said. “To me, that’s not difficult to figure out, especially if you’re a person who lives in rural Maine.”
BDN writer Marie Weidmayer contributed to this report.