'Strong smell of Marijuana' led to Orland grow bust

'Strong smell of Marijuana' led to Orland grow bust

Maine: Nearly 50 Pounds of Marijuana Seized in Orland; Woman Convicted.

The smell of marijuana outside an Orland home led to the seizure of nearly 50 pounds of cannabis and a criminal conviction for a woman living there, according to newly released court records that offer a glimpse into one of the illegal marijuana operations that have sprung up across Maine in recent years.

That woman, 36-year-old Mei Hong Chen, pleaded guilty last week to misdemeanor drug possession charges and was ordered to pay nearly $5,000 in fines and fees.

Chen originally faced a felony drug possession charge, but that charge was dismissed as part of a plea deal with state prosecutors. She never spent time in jail and was not ordered to serve time behind bars as part of her plea.

“We thought it was a fair resolution based upon all of the facts,” her defense attorney, Will Ashe, said Thursday in a short statement, adding that Chen is a U.S. citizen. “She’s moved on with her life.”

The case is one of several that have come to light in Maine in the past 18 months in which people of Chinese citizenship or descent have been charged with operating illegal commercial marijuana growing operations in rural parts of the state. In addition to Chen’s property on Upper Falls Road in Orland, police have raided large-scale marijuana growing sites in the towns of Belgrade, Carmel, China, Cornville, Machias and Wilton.

In most of the raids, police have found sophisticated indoor growing operations, a thousand or more plants, or between 40 and 200 pounds of harvested marijuana, with values ranging from a few hundred thousand dollars up to $1 million. A leaked government memo last summer indicated there are hundreds of marijuana growing sites in Maine that are linked to China and could produce more than $4 billion in revenue.

Marijuana is legal in Maine, but large-scale growing is only allowed within the regulated adult-use and medical markets, and selling across state lines is illegal. Last summer, Maine’s entire congressional delegation wrote a joint letter to the Department of Justice demanding that the sites be shut down.

In Orland, state drug enforcement agents conducted a search of Chen’s home on Aug. 16, 2022, after the town’s code enforcement officer contacted state marijuana licensing officials about a possible illegal growing operation. Luke Chiavelli, the code enforcement officer, told police that he went to check on the property after neighbors complained to him about a “strong smell of marijuana” emanating from the site, according to a court affidavit released Thursday by the state attorney general’s office.

Chiavelli met a man in the driveway who did not speak English and, after they tried to communicate by using hand gestures, the man let Chiavelli enter the house. Inside, Chiavelli observed a large number of plants being cultivated and took photographs that he later sent to state officials.

After looking into the matter, police concluded that the 63-year-old man whom Chiavelli met in the driveway — whose name does not appear among criminal cases filed in Hancock County or in federal court — allegedly began growing marijuana at the site in late 2021, when power usage at the property shot up.

The prior owner incurred a monthly Central Maine Power bill of $500 in January 2021, but those bills increased to more than $6,000 per month by the summer of 2022, according to police. The power usage rose so dramatically that CMP installed a commercial meter at the property and was considering changing the account from a residential rate to a commercial rate, police said.

Police could not find any authorization or permit that had been issued to allow commercial marijuana cultivation at the property and so obtained a search warrant. In addition to finding nearly 47 pounds of harvested marijuana inside the house, they found a .22-gauge rifle and a baggie containing more than 200 bullets of matching caliber, according to a police evidence log.

It was unclear Thursday if any other person might be charged in the case. Danna Hayes, spokesperson for the Maine attorney general’s office, declined to comment.

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