Police charge 5 people, seize thousands of plants in illegal pot operations at central Maine residences

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Police charge 5 people, seize thousands of plants in illegal pot operations at central Maine residences.

Sheriff's deputies first made arrests at a residence in China Saturday before state police made several more Tuesday afternoon.

Five people have been charged with unlawful trafficking in drugs — three in the town of China and two in Belgrade — as police say they’re increasingly uncovering illegal marijuana grow sites within rural parts of Kennebec County.

At Tuesday’s noontime meeting of the Kennebec County commissioners, Kennebec County Sheriff Ken Mason updated commissioners on the arrests in China.

“It was not a licensed grow,” Mason said. “And there are a lot of those in Kennebec County.”

He noted that there’s an estimated 300 to 400 such operations statewide, and law enforcement is whittling away at them.

Two men, Changgeng Chen, 36, and Bing Xu, 41, and a woman, Aiqin Chen, 43, were arrested Saturday when Kennebec sheriff’s deputies seized 970 mature plants and “many seedlings”at an illegal cannabis growing facility at 1144 Route 3 in China, Lt. Chris Read said in a news release Tuesday. They were both charged with a Class B count of unlawful trafficking in schedule Z drugs.

Authorities were first alerted to the growing site in China on Saturday when police received a tip that a person was being held against their will at the residence, according to the release.

The Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office said its deputies seized 970 marijuana plants on Saturday after uncovering an illegal grow operation on Route 3 in the town of China. Photo courtesy of Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office

However, none of the three people there were found to be in distress, police said, and the responding officer received permission to check the area on the first level below the living quarters at the residence. Police said the lower area “was confirmed to be an unlicensed commercial marijuana grow operation with five rooms, of which three were divided laterally making an upper and lower room,” according to the release.

Sheriff’s deputies arrested the three people — who all listed the home as their residence — and were assisted by the Maine Office of the Attorney General and the Maine Office of Cannabis Policy.

Read said police could not follow-up on the false report that someone was being held against their will at the residence because that complaint came anonymously to the sheriff’s office.

Two more arrests were made Tuesday morning, when Yuequan Chen, 44, of Massachusetts, and Li Min Chan, 66, of Florida, were arrested at a pair of illegal growing sites at residences on Point and Guptill roads in Belgrade, according to Maine State Police spokesperson Shannon Moss. They were each charged with illegal cultivation of marijuana and unlawful trafficking in scheduled drugs with over 500 plants. Both charges are Class B felonies.

More than 2,700 more cannabis plants were seized between two residences in Belgrade, after state troopers executed a pair of search warrants “in response to community complaints,” Moss said in a news release Tuesday afternoon.

It was not immediately apparent if the arrests were connected. Moss deferred questions to the Kennebec County District Attorney’s Office, where officials were not immediately available for comment.

While it was not immediately clear where the illegal cannabis was intended to be sold, law enforcement and industry workers said Tuesday it was unlikely that it was being sold in Maine’s legal market.

Maine’s current laws on growing and consuming recreational marijuana are considered some of the most tolerant in the nation, in part allowing up to six plants to be cultivated at home for personal use and permitting adults to consume cannabis in a licensed social setting. Maine’s recreational cannabis market has been steadily growing, as licensed cultivation sites and retailers record skyrocketing profits.

This past summer, Maine’s congressional delegation asked the U.S. Department of Justice to shut down illegal Chinese-run marijuana growing operations in the state, citing a report that there could be as many as 270 such operations in the state worth more than $4 billion.

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Region: Maine

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