A Homeland Security Investigations agent and Somerset County Sheriff’s deputy walk inside an illegal marijuana grow in St. Albans on May 30. Photo courtesy of Somerset County Sheriff’s Office

The Somerset County Sheriff’s Office has been taking a “proactive stance” on its investigations into illegal marijuana growing operations with suspected ties to the country of China because the profits are believed to fund international fentanyl production, the sheriff said Wednesday.

“I believe that the profits end up back in China,” Sheriff Dale Lancaster told the county’s Board of Commissioners. “Those profits are used to buy the chemicals to send to the cartel to make fentanyl. And fentanyl is killing our citizens.”

Illegal marijuana growing operations that have been busted across the state in recent months are suspected to be connected to “transnational criminal organizations” with ties to China, Darcie N. McElwee, U.S. Attorney for the District of Maine, said in May. However, McElwee did not mention the connection to fentanyl or say what other crimes the organizations are suspected of committing. Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid drug that officials say has been leading to overdoses and deaths across the U.S. in recent years.

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, a Republican, mentioned the theory that the illegal grows are connected to fentanyl production and distribution during questioning this week of FBI Director Christopher Wray. The marijuana growing operations appear to be connected to “Chinese organized crime,” Wray said at a Wednesday congressional hearing. But, like McElwee, he did not specify the nature of those crimes.

Wray called the marijuana grows in Maine an “attractive business proposition” for the groups behind them and agreed with Collins that “we’re seeing it in rural communities.”

According to the U.S. Attorney’s office, law enforcement across Maine had shut down more than 40 such growing operations as of early May. Authorities believe they have identified about 100 illegal grows in Maine.


Most have been in rural areas of Maine, including Franklin, Kennebec and Lincoln counties. Somerset County accounts for a large portion of the operations busted so far.

Between January and May, the Somerset County Sheriff’s Office has led the execution of search warrants at 18 suspected marijuana grows, according to the most recent information released by Lancaster’s office. Eleven people have been arrested in Somerset County in connection with the busts, as of the end of May.


Lancaster’s comments about the motivation for shutting down the illegal grows came during questioning from the county commissioners Wednesday about the ongoing investigations.

Somerset County Sheriff Dale Lancaster, seen during a 2018 news conference, told county officials Wednesday that proceeds from illegal marijuana grows with suspected ties to the country of China help fund international fentanyl production. Morning Sentinel file

Commissioner John Alsop, who represents Cornville and Skowhegan, said that the illegal growing operations do not appear to have an impact on Somerset County residents, aside from odors and reported high power usage.

Other crimes, such as burglaries, have a more direct impact on county residents and should be priorities for the sheriff’s office, Alsop said.


“It’s a shame that our law enforcement resources are being used so much to bust these,” Alsop said. “This seems to be an appropriate case for the old revenue agents that used to bust up moonshine operations. Why are we stuck with this?”

Lancaster responded with his explanation about the suspected connection to the fentanyl trade. The people involved with the illegal growing operations are not selling drugs in Somerset County, he said.

In 2023, there were 29 suspected and confirmed deaths from drug overdoses in Somerset County, according to data published by Maine Drug Data Hub, a collaboration between several state departments and the University of Maine. In the same period, there were 431 nonfatal overdoses with emergency medical response in the county.

“I think people get hung up on the word ‘marijuana,’” Lancaster said. “But all that marijuana is, is the widget to make a profit. That’s what we’re combating. The fentanyl that’s killing our people — it’s a shame.”

Each investigation of an illegal grow costs the sheriff’s office approximately $3,000 in labor and resources, Lancaster told the commissioners. But that figure is difficult to calculate because the investigations typically involve cooperation among local, county, state and federal law enforcement agencies and detectives are not asked to track the exact number hours dedicated to a particular case, the sheriff said.

“We did kind of a rough estimate to come up with that number,” Lancaster said.


Regular and overtime wages in the Sheriff’s Office administrative, detective and patrol divisions were well within budgeted figures as of March, according to Somerset County budget information published this spring.


Despite the resources needed for the investigations, most of the five county commissioners appeared to support the Somerset County Sheriff’s Office’s efforts to investigate the illegal growing operations. Several said they hope federal authorities will provide more assistance.

“Kudos to the sheriff and the people in your department for spearheading this because it has brought it to the attention of the feds,” said Chairman Robert Sezak, who represents Fairfield and Norridgewock, to bring an end of the conversation. “And hopefully they will do more.”

On Thursday, the Somerset County Sheriff’s Office executed a search warrant at a residence on North Main Street in Solon, seizing 1,142 marijuana plants and more than 100 pounds of processed marijuana. No one was around and no arrests were made. Photo courtesy of Somerset County Sheriff’s Office

Wray, of the FBI, said in his congressional testimony Tuesday that federal authorities are continuing their investigations.

“I’m very sympathetic to our state and local partners,” Wray said.

Even as federal officials pledge to do more, local authorities continue to investigate illegal marijuana operations on a weekly, or sometimes daily, basis.

On Thursday, Lancaster announced that his office executed a search warrant at a residence on North Main Street in Solon, seizing 1,142 marijuana plants and more than 100 pounds of processed marijuana. No one was around and no arrests were made. The search, resulting from a monthslong investigation, was assisted by the Waterville Police Department, the Maine Office of Cannabis Policy, the district attorney’s office, and the U.S. Attorney’s office.

Also on Thursday, the Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office reported executing two separate search warrants the same morning, assisted by agents from Homeland Security Investigations, the Maine Office of Cannabis Policy and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Authorities seized 1,168 marijuana plants from an old farmhouse on Pond Road in Manchester and found evidence that a large amount of marijuana had recently been harvested at a residence on Sheldon Street in Farmingdale. No one was found at either location and no arrests were made.

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