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In 2012, Washington and Colorado voters made history when they approved measures to legalize recreational marijuana. Washington Initiative 502 “authorizes the state liquor board to regulate and tax marijuana for persons twenty-one years of age or older.”Since the vote in Washington, the Liquor Board has written a complex set of rules for the state’s new, legal recreational cannabis marketplace. The agency has also set limits on the amount of marijuana that can be grown. And the Board has begun to license growers, processors and retailers.For now, the Obama administration has signaled it will not interfere with Washington and Colorado’s legal pot experiment, unless there is evidence that legal pot is “leaking” to other states or children are getting access to the legal product. The feds are also watching to see if criminal organizations exploit the legal market.The first marijuana retail stores in Washington opened in July 2014.Recreational marijuana is also set to become legal in Oregon on July 1, 2015 after voters approved Measure 91 in November 2014.

Massive Illegal Pot Grow In Western Washington Allegedly Has Connections to China  

Grays Harbor County Sheriff's Office
A small portion of the illicit marijuana found during a three-county bust on Tuesday.

We're learning more about a massive illegal marijuana growing operation busted by police in Western Washington this week. One unusual aspect of this case is that the 44 people arrested at a network of grow houses were all Chinese.

Complaints from neighbors about possible illicit indoor pot farms in Grays Harbor County put detectives on the trail of something bigger. The takedown involved search warrants at 50 locations from Ocean Shores to Bellevue, Washington.

Deputies seized marijuana plants allegedly destined for the East Coast with a street value around $80 million along with gold and stacks of $100 bills.

Chief Criminal Deputy Steve Shumate of the Gray Harbor Sheriff's Office said all of the people arrested speak very little or no English.

"It appears they didn't really have involvement with any of the local community, if you will,” he said. “So it was pretty much restricted to the Chinese nationals."

Shumate said some of the arrested immigrants said through a translator they understood marijuana was legalized in the Northwest. They claimed to be unaware the grow operations where they worked were unlicensed.

Two Chinese women and 10 men made initial court appearances in Grays Harbor Superior Court on Wednesday. They face charges related to illegal manufacture of marijuana and unlawful use of buildings for drug purposes.

Thirteen additional suspects have court dates at the Montesano courthouse on Friday.

Shumate said investigators are still trying to figure out the big money flows and the immigration history of the players. The Grays Harbor County Drug Task Force is the lead agency in the large case supported by other local, state and federal agencies including the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Shumate said he previously encountered international tendrils in the drug trade during his career in law enforcement that extends back more than two decades. But until now, those foreign drug cartel connections led from the Pacific Northwest to Latin America or British Columbia.

Chinese involvement in sophisticated illegal marijuana operations struck him as surprising and new, he said in an interview Thursday. But then further research uncovered recent marijuana busts involving Chinese citizens in Colorado and California, states that have also legalized pot for recreational use by adults. Court records from Colorado and California describe money transfers from China and a similar modus operandi to what investigators believe they uncovered in Western Washington.

"Numerous homes were being purchased for the purpose of setting up these illegal marijuana grows," the Grays Harbor Sheriff's Office said in a news release Tuesday. "The majority of these homes were purchased with cash and information was developed that these purchases were conducted by Chinese Nationals involved in organized crime.”

Shumate predicted that it will "take some time" for investigators to get to the bottom of the Chinese-led growing and trafficking organization busted this week, which spanned three Western Washington counties.

"We have warehouses filled with evidence that they are continuing to process," Shumate said. "There are obviously more leads for them to follow up."

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.