Photo via Ryan Lackey
This week the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) teamed up with California authorities to raid and seize 100 homes tied to black market cannabis distribution in what is now being considered one of the largest residential asset forfeiture cases in American history.
According to the Associated Press, the interstate marijuana trafficking operation was based in Sacramento, with grow-ops housed in suburban and rural neighborhoods throughout the city’s metro area. Allegedly funded by foreign nationals based in China, federal authorities claimed that the organization shipped their cannabis by way of truck, mail, and couriers to distribution points in states across the Midwest and East Coast.
After more than a year of threats from U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions aimed at state-legal ganjapreneurs, the seizures represent the DOJ’s most high-profile cannabis enforcement effort during Donald Trump’s presidential tenure, but had no intersection with the Golden State’s newly implemented adult-use market for legal cannabis.
“It absolutely has nothing to do with [legal recreational marijuana],” McGregor Scott, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of California, told the Sacramento Bee. “This is illegal under anybody’s law.”
The culmination of a four-year investigation, DOJ officials said that the grow houses were all purchased with money sent directly from the Fujian Province in China, with the explicit purpose of farming marijuana to distribute outside of California. After the dust settled from the two-day sweep, authorities reported the seizure of 61,050 marijuana plants, 440 pounds of ready-to-sell bud, and about $100,000 cash. Additionally, the homes used for the illicit trafficking operation, valued at more than $100 million, now belong to the U.S. government and will eventually be sold at public auction.
"This criminal organization has put a tremendous amount of equity into these homes through these wire transfers coming in from China and elsewhere," Scott said in an interview with the Associated Press. "We're going to take it. We're going to take the house. We're going to take the equity."
During the years-long investigation, cops tracked the black market grow-ops through local utility companies, with one court document reporting that the suburban cultivation sites had spiked electricity usage more than 3,000 times that of their neighbors.
Since Jeff Sessions took over as America’s top cop, he has spent a significant portion of his time and energy criticizing state-legal cannabis reform, most notably revoking the Obama-era Cole memo in January which unilaterally removed federal protections for state-legal cannabis businesses. And while calling in over 500 federal agents to raid cannabis grows is still a debatable use of taxpayer funds, the DOJ focus on illicit black market sales is encouraging, as it potentially signals a lack of interest in prosecuting California’s regulated cannabis industry.
Despite the record-breaking seizure statistics, federal authorities reported zero arrests during the Sacramento raids. Agents on the scene told the Sacramento Bee that people found inside of the grow homes during the raids were working as indentured servants and not as willing criminal operators. DOJ officials and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Sacramento said that they will continue to pursue criminal charges against the trafficking syndicate, as well as the California real estate agents who they allege knowingly facilitated the criminal operation.