The tiny town of Shiprock, located on the high plains of New Mexico, is sacred ground to the people who live there. Tucked into the northwestern corner of the state, Shiprock sits squarely on Navajo Nation territory, amid an expanse of golden hills speckled with rugged greenery.
For a long time, the farms in Shiprock focused on traditional crops, largely corn used as a staple in indigenous Navajo cookery. But over the summer of 2020, local residents grew increasingly worried as a stream of trucks and heavy machinery appeared in the small town, despite restrictions on activity on the reservation due to an aggressive outbreak of COVID cases.
As it turned out, the machinery was a part of a new plan to cultivate marijuana on Navajo land, brokered through a local business leader and Chinese investors looking for the perfect place to quietly harvest high-grade illegal pot under the guise of legal “hemp farming.” In swift fashion, the native residents of Shiprock rallied around a defense of their land and culture.
In the first protest in July, residents blocked off a road while waving signs that read “WE DON’T NEED CHINESE TO FARM” and “THIS IS NAVAJO LAND, NOT CHINA.” One young boy took to the microphone to declare, “No Asian invasion!”
A dozen more protests followed in the ensuing months, leading to violent outbursts like the burning of a greenhouse. Despite the optics, Navajo protesters insisted that the problem wasn’t race, but rather “disrespect” from the growing number of guest workers who were occupying native land. Rumors about Chinese mafia involvement, human trafficking and sightings of assault rifles abounded. Residents began carrying guns, expecting shootouts with Chinese farm workers that never came.
Meanwhile, the farms kept growing, expanding out of Shiprock and onto adjacent lands. “I’ve never seen anything like that in my 22-year career,” Navajo Nation Police Chief Phillip Francisco told BBC News. “Never would we have worried about this magnitude of an operation, right under our noses.”
Across the U.S., the phenomenon of Chinese-owned pot farms popping up seemingly out of nowhere is stoking existential fears and fueling fights with neighbors who think these businesses, and the people who run them, “don’t belong” in their communities.
In Colorado, a wave of new farms funded by Chinese investors led to a record-breaking bust of some 80,000 marijuana plants in 2018 — yet illegal grows continue, buoyed by consumers’ appetite for affordable black-market bud and the lucrative prospect of moving marijuana across state borders to areas without legal retail access. In Washington, officials have busted a string of suburban homes owned by Chinese residents with grow operations in basements. Ditto in Sacramento, where police found a network of Chinese-owned homes designed for illicit indoor grows.
Elsewhere in Northern California, a conflict is raging between residents (who are mostly white) and Hmong farmers, who hail from Southeast Asia and China and have settled into the Mount Shasta region in waves over the last half-decade. Local authorities have attempted to shut off water to Hmong homes over accusations of illegal marijuana grows, with one Republican lawmaker explicitly suggesting that “Asian cartels” are behind everything.
The drug busts keep happening, including in Navajo Nation, where federal and local authorities raided the 36 farms and confiscated some 60,000 pounds of marijuana in November 2020. “Operation Navajo Gold” was billed a success — but, crucially, it didn’t fully shutter the Chinese farm. Instead, much of the operation simply relocated to Oklahoma, the new Wild West of American weed, becoming another modern-day example of how the War on Drugs continues to falter in the face of human ingenuity and economic need.
For Bruce Margolin, a longtime lawyer and advocate for marijuana legalization, such conflicts reflect a history of racist drug laws that, in practice, disproportionately targeted people of color. He is part of a class-action lawsuit on behalf of the Hmong residents in Northern California’s Siskiyou County, and Margolin is adamant that the government has overstepped by attempting to stymie the water that the community needs to live.
“It’s in their culture and lifestyle to grow and farm. It just so happens that cannabis is very lucrative right now, and there are opportunities for almost anyone to get into the business. They’re no different from Caucasian farmers who are growing illegal weed all over the place,” Margolin says. “Some think that, because a farmer is foreign-looking, they’re doing harmful things or don’t really care about the country. There is a lot of basic bias and prejudice at work.”
Moreover, Margolin suggests that the purported rise of Asian-operated marijuana farms is a result of burdensome legal-pot laws and a generational economic crash that has left countless immigrant investors, business owners and laborers looking for a way to recover the loss of so many shuttered businesses, especially with anti-Asian attitudes gaining traction in mainstream America. “With the COVID pandemic cutting away their incomes, a lot of these folks are looking for work, and don’t know exactly what they’re getting into,” he adds.
It’s a complex wrinkle in a news media narrative that has largely fixated on the notion of Chinese organized crime as the culprit, with rampant accusations that workers who pick and trim marijuana are all human-trafficking victims. There is evidence of trafficking victims who are forced to work in weed farms because they have no other option for money and survival, but the aftermath of real-world busts suggest that many of the laborers found in Chinese pot-farm busts are there voluntarily after losing jobs in retail and hospitality, and fearing that such work is unsustainable during the pandemic.
“Everyone is laid off from the restaurants,” one Chinese pot-farm worker told Searchlight New Mexico. “How else am I going to put food on the table for my family?”
The nuance has discouraged some criminal justice experts from even using the term “organized crime” when assessing Chinese marijuana busts, even if it’s likely that there’s illicit capital and money laundering in the pipeline. “It appears that word spread that it’s a good business to get into, so people got into it. I think because of the recent decriminalization of marijuana in this state these folks maybe thought they wouldn’t get in that much trouble if they got caught doing it. That’s what it looks like,” Jason Walker, chief criminal deputy prosecutor in Washington’s Grays Harbor County, told NWNews in 2018 after a bust.
Indeed, there are many examples of Chinese investors who appear to have raised funds in other lines of (legal) business and are hoping to cash in on the Green Rush while they can, even if it means playing with legal loopholes to disguise illicit grows. A network of informal Chinese job “agencies” then connect workers from the diaspora to new farms, often offering transportation, housing and food as part of the deal. It’s an attractive environment for immigrants who want community and security, and workers are often multi-generational; one bust in Northern California found 23 people working inside a home, ages ranging from 19 to 77.
That leads to some huge consequences when authorities shut down a thriving marijuana operation — often, immigrant workers are left with few resources and little connection to the people who hired them. Some end up taking services for victims of human trafficking, but others don’t believe they’re victims at all, instead trying to hitchhike or sleeping on the streets while searching for a new home and occupation.
Then there’s the fact that Asian pot farmers who are operating legally say that they’re being increasingly profiled by law enforcement in places like Oklahoma and Northern California. Matt Stacy, a cannabis attorney in Oklahoma City, claimed to BBC News that police have disproportionately targeted his Chinese clients, many of whom don’t speak English well. “We have to prove over and over that the money that someone was lawfully carrying with them is actually their money. The fact is, this is an unbanked industry,” Stacy observed.
The last point is critical: Margolin argues that the legal pot industry is hampered by rules and regulations that make the black-market approach just as attractive, if not more promising, to entrepreneurs who want to cut costs and legal corners on their way to dank profits. That includes the financial challenges that come with federal prohibition, which lingers despite mass adoption of legal-pot policies across the U.S. He remains a staunch critic of the costs of entering the legal weed business, which he says tilts the advantage to well-monied corporate brands over independent farmers.
“There are lawmakers talking about new initiatives that would change [the market], but to what degree and how it goes in the future… I mean, the government wants a big piece of the action. But all these special taxes that they claim are needed to run programs and regulations, well, they’re breaking the backs of people that are in business. And many can’t compete with those who just say, ‘Screw it, I’ll risk a misdemeanor, I’m going to grow and sell on my own.’”
The result is a sketchy gray area and lots of opportunities for workers to be exploited by employers who want the fastest harvests for the lowest cost. This is nothing new for the modern American drug economy, but a massive obstacle for a massive weed industry that desperately wants to be stable and legalized.
In a lot of ways, then, the war over Chinese pot farms is really a war about a broken marijuana market and imbalances in labor, supply and demand, all affected by a pandemic that’s disproportionately stripped immigrants of jobs and agency. Everybody wants weed, and only so many people can grow it (legally) — but desperate times call for clever new measures, even if it means taking on the risk of law enforcement busts.
Calculating the potential reward of that gamble is a tale as old as drug use itself. The only difference now is the ethnicity of the people who need to gamble in this way — and once again, their race has become the fixation of people who want to portray the fight over pot farms as one of foreign interference, rather than a homegrown crisis.