AUGUSTA — A bill that would ban citizens of China and four other countries from purchasing property in Maine drew strong opposition during a public hearing Wednesday, with the state’s leading civil rights group calling it blatantly racist and unconstitutional.

The bill, which would would also create a state anti-racketeering law, was proposed in response to news reports about Chinese investors setting up illegal marijuana grow sites throughout the state – an issue that prompted Maine’s congressional delegation to call for an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice.

The issue gained attention in August when an internal memo by the U.S. Border Patrol revealed that there were an estimated 270 illegal marijuana growing operations in Maine that are owned by Chinese nationals and take in an estimated $4.37 billion in revenue.

Assistant Attorney General John Risler said state prosecutors have been working with county and local law enforcement agencies over the last two years to crack down on unlicensed grow operations that are illegal under the state’s medical and recreational cannabis programs.

Risler said the state’s legalization of recreational and medical marijuana had caused confusion about enforcement among county and local police, who have been more focused on combating fentanyl, a highly potent drug that is driving overdose deaths in Maine and across the country. But Risler said the state is now making progress and shutting down grow operations using existing laws. No additional laws are needed, he said.

“It’s just good old fashioned marijuana cultivation like we were handling 10 years ago,” Risler said. “It’s a crime. We can investigate it with our traditional tools. We just have to remember that.”


Over the last few weeks, police have conducted searches and in some cases made arrests at homes filled with marijuana plants in Belgrade, China, Cornville, Mercer, Norridgewock and Whitefield.

The bill debated Wednesday, L.D. 2204, would create a state anti-racketeering law similar to those that have been used to take down organized crime rings.

It would create a new Class A crime for engaging in an enterprise with a pattern of criminal activity and would carry penalties of up to 20 years in prison and a $1 million fine. If scheduled drugs are involved, then the punishment would increase to up to 30 years in prison and a $1 million fine. And the state could seize any personal property associated with the scheme.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. John Andrews, R-Paris, also would require a license to install or upgrade electrical services of 400 amperes or more in a residential building, an effort to regulate the kind of power upgrades used to support grow operations. Such upgrades, or a month-to-month increase of 500% or more in power consumption, also would be reported to the Maine State Police under the bill.

However, the legislation goes beyond cracking down on criminal activity or marijuana growing and says people from China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea and Russia who are not permanent legal citizens of the United States would be prohibited from purchasing property in Maine. Andrews urged lawmakers to use his bill as a template for new laws to address what he described as a “clear and present danger” to communities. He said the grow operations are run by “a network of organized criminals from adversarial nations” and are taking much-needed housing off of the market.

“This is a vast criminal conspiracy that we must address,” Andrews said. “This bill takes a serious approach to dealing with a clear and present danger to our way of life and the safety of small towns all over Maine.”


Members of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, which held Thursday’s hearing but did not take any action, asked Risler about the nationalities of the people recently arrested at the illegal grow sites.

Risler told the committee that he estimated that half of the suspects arrested in recent raids were foreign nationals who had either overstayed their visas or were in the country illegally. He said most of the illegal marijuana is sold outside the state in places like New York, although a small percentage may be entering Maine’s medical marijuana market.

The ACLU of Maine blasted the proposal in a news release ahead of the public hearing, calling it “a blatantly racist bill that targets people based on their national origin.”

Republican proposals to ban foreign ownership of property have come up in a handful of other states, where the idea has also faced backlash by groups calling the idea racist and illegal.

Similar restrictions are being considered by lawmakers in Alabama, Louisiana and Texas. A law passed last year in Florida to prohibit Chinese citizens and foreign nationals from certain other countries from owning property was struck down by a federal appeals court earlier this month, although an appeal is possible.

Bethany Li, legal director of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, praised the appeals court ruling in Florida in a written statement provided to Reuters and said such such legislation violates the U.S. Constitution by specifically targeting Chinese citizens.

The ruling, Li said, “should serve as a warning to other states who are considering passing similarly racist bills, steeped in a history when Asians were ineligible for citizenship and were told they didn’t belong.”

ACLU of Maine Policy Counsel Michael Kebede said Wednesday that the Maine bill would violate the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits discrimination based on national origin, race, ethnicity or color. He also argued that requiring utility companies to report a private citizen’s power usage to law enforcement would constitute a violation of privacy protected by the Fourth and 14th Amendments of the Constitution.

“This bill is unwise, unconstitutional and unnecessary to enforce existing laws,” Kebede said. “It would expand penalties for behaviors that are already crimes, double down on the failed drug policies of the past 50 years, discriminate against people based on their country of origin and allow the state to invade people’s privacy simply based on the amount of electricity they use.”

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