This month, hundreds of federal and local law enforcement agents seized scores of Northern California properties purchased with money wired to the United States by a Chinese crime organization and used to grow colossal quantities of cannabis.
According to a press release from the Justice Department release, on April 4, California authorities cooperated in the raids because the cannabis was apparently being grown for shipment across state lines. Additionally, none of these grow operations were licensed by the state.
The raids — involving some 500 officers, including SWAT teams — followed a months-long investigation targeting dozens of Chinese nationals who purchased homes in seven counties across California. U.S. Attorney McGregor Scott said most of the homeowners were in the United States legally, and were not arrested. An investigation is underway to determine if the homeowners were indebted to the criminal organization and coerced into growing cannabis.
Scott said the growers may have essentially been “indentured servants,” and many speak only Mandarin Chinese.
“We’re treating them as victims,” added FBI Special Agent in Charge Sean Ragan, speaking to the Associated Press.
Authorities said they monitored at least 125 wire transfers totaling $6.3 million from China’s Fujian Province — all just shy of the $50,000 limit imposed by the Chinese government, as the AP notes. The feds said the cannabis was being shipped to various states across the country, as far east as New York City.
“This was a large-scale operation, with millions of dollars coming into the U.S. from China,” said Cindy Chen, assistant Special Agent in Charge at IRS Criminal Investigation. “This criminal organization used foreign money to purchase homes and turned them into marijuana grow houses; all at the cost of innocent neighborhoods.”
The hardline U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions struck a xenophobic tone in his statement, saying that transnational criminal organizations are “a blight on our communities, bringing dangerous drugs to our streets and trying to impose a false sovereignty over our neighborhoods.”
Exploitation of immigrant labor is a phenomenon now widely seen in the West Coast’s cannabis industry, just as in traditional agribusiness sectors. But where cannabis operations remain outside the law, there are even slimmer prospects for decent labor standards. Signs of this problem have been mounting for some time.
Last August, a dispute at a cannabis farm in California’s Yuba County erupted into a shoot-out, leaving one employee dead and two sheriff’s deputies wounded. The violence broke out when police responded to reports of a trimmer at the farm uprooting and damaging plants following an argument with his employers. Management described the employee as a “trimmigrants,” the slightly derisive sobriquet for seasonal workers hired to trim the newly harvested buds.
And in Washington, another state that has legalized, government officials conducted a series of raids in which over 50 Chinese nationals were arrested for unlicensed cultivation. Authorities in Grays Harbor County said the suspects were believed to be “indentured servants” who had been brought to the United States on “false pretenses” and forced to work to pay off their passage.
A related problem is the stigma that attaches to immigrant labor — which may follow even where there is no evidence of such exploitation. Recent months have seen a controversy in Northern California’s Siskiyou County, where ethnic Hmong immigrants from Laos have been moving into the local cannabis industry. This has sparked suspicion and resentment from many of the county’s white residents, and led to claims of discrimination from Hmong residents, who charged they were being selectively targeted in marijuana raids. A discrimination suit filed against the county by Siskyou Hmong was rejected by a federal judge in Sacramento in September.
TELL US, did you know foreign crime networks grew cannabis in California?