Lawmakers want answers from AG about Chinese ties to illicit weed farms

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Fifty members of Congress are requesting that the Department of Justice share information on illegal marijuana cultivation linked to Chinese nationals across the country.

The letter was signed by a wide range of lawmakers from both parties and both chambers, as well as both sides of the cannabis legalization argument.

It was led by Reps. Pete Sessions (R-Texas), Jared Golden (D-Maine) and David Valadao (R-Calif.), and Sens. Angus King (I-Maine) and Joni Ernst (R-Iowa).

Sessions is one of Congress’ most vocal anti-legalization lawmakers, and he was joined by other legalization opponents such as Sens. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) and James Lankford (R-Okla.). On the flip side, the letter was also signed by lawmakers from legal recreational or medical states who support some cannabis legislation, such as Sens. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) and Ben Ray Lujan (D-N.M.), and Reps. Golden and Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.).

Notably, all of Maine’s delegation in the Senate and House signed the letter, while none of the co-chairs of the Congressional Cannabis Caucus were involved.

The specifics: The letter, addressed to Attorney General Merrick Garland, expresses grave concern about the involvement of Chinese organized crime groups in growing cannabis illegally in the U.S. and requests lots of information from the DOJ about these activities.

The letter asks what resources the DOJ is putting toward investigating the Chinese Communist Party’s involvement in unlicensed marijuana farms, how many farms the agency is aware of, how state legalization has impacted the spread of such operations, and if any revenue from CCP-funded farms is sent back to China. There are seven questions in total, and the letter gives the DOJ a deadline of Feb. 23 to gather the information and respond.

The background: America has two main marijuana industries: one licensed and regulated by states, and another that operates outside of any state laws. Both are federally illegal. The unlicensed market has persisted in many states that have legalized recreational or medical marijuana, such as California, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Oregon. Law enforcement officials say that the unlicensed market is run by and employs people of many different nationalities, including — but not limited to — Mexican, Bulgarian, Israeli and Chinese citizens.

There has been a notable uptick in recent years in the number of grows linked to Chinese nationals. Some of these have popped up recently in states like Oklahoma and Maine, where the regulatory and enforcement structure make it easier to slide under the radar altogether or misuse a state license. In California, the Department of Cannabis Control told POLITICO in March 2023 that some but not all of the grows with funding traceable to China are operated by Chinese triads.

A Department of Homeland Security memo first reported by the Daily Caller, received as part of a Freedom of Information Act request, said that more than 270 unlicensed cannabis cultivation sites in Maine were operated by Chinese nationals. Maine Sens. King and Susan Collins and Reps. Chellie Pingree and Golden previously urged the DOJ to act on the issue.

The relationship between the Chinese Communist Party and China’s drug operations is complicated, Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and director of the Initiative on Nonstate Armed Actors, previously told POLITICO. The triads are often allowed to operate by the CCP in exchange for functioning as their enforcers in other countries — though, Felbab-Brown adds, the CCP does not control them.