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Marijuana farms are increasingly Chinese-run. Why?

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Do you know how your marijuana was grown? About half of U.S. states have now legalized recreational use of marijuana, and that has led to an explosion of pot farms in states with cheap land and cheap labor. And many are using workers from China. With NPR member station KUNM reporter Alice Fordham, NPR's Emily Feng looks into why this is happening.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Last year, the New Mexico authorities raided a marijuana farm and found dozens of undocumented Chinese workers.

LYNN SANCHEZ: They looked weathered, like they'd been exposed to the elements.

FENG: This is Lynn Sanchez, a director at the New Mexico social services nonprofit The Life Link. She was called into the farm after the raid took place.

SANCHEZ: They had burns, visible burns on their hands and arms. So they were very scared, very freaked out. They looked very malnourished.

FENG: The workers say they were trafficked to these farms, prevented from leaving and never paid. They're part of a new pipeline of vulnerable Chinese migrants trying to escape China and who are now streaming into the U.S., and they're ending up at at least hundreds of Chinese-run marijuana farms that have popped up nationwide from California to Maine.

L: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: Workers like L, aged 41, who was rescued during the raid on this New Mexico farm - we're using only his surnames initial because he's afraid of being sent back to China.

L: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: He told NPR he struggled to find work in China during the pandemic, as much of the country was under lockdown.

L: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: A state developer demolished his house to make way for a new project, but the new apartment he'd paid for was never built. When L protested, trying to get his deposit back, he got into a fight with the company and was jailed. That was when a disillusioned L saw Chinese social media videos about earning a fortune in the U.S. and got in contact with an agent who promised to help him come to America.

L: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: First, L flew to Turkey, then Ecuador. Then he took a succession of buses and boats and spent a grueling month walking to Mexico through the hazardous Darien Gap.

L: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: The journey, L says, was full of trials and tribulations. He regretted the journey, but he'd already paid the agent about $17,000. En route, L was robbed twice and feared death through exposure, but he kept on walking.

L: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: Finally, last May, L crossed the U.S.-Mexico border into Texas. He's one of the 37,000 Chinese people who crossed into the country this way last year alone. U.S. border authorities say this number is more than the past 10 years combined. L was briefly detained after crossing into the U.S. but was quickly released. He says he then went to California last July. He paid Chinese agents for a Los Angeles address he could give to U.S. authorities. And it was in California that L and three other Chinese workers NPR spoke to saw advertisements to tend plants on farms in New Mexico.

L: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: But shortly after arriving in New Mexico, their passports and phones were confiscated. They realized the farms were, in fact, marijuana operations, and L was worked hard.

L: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: L says the only shelter were wood shacks. Mud caked everything, and at night, they slept on the floor. The Chinese owners of that grow later lost their license and are being fined $1 million. Much of the money behind these operations is also coming from Chinese-born investors trying to move their money out of China, and some have been scammed themselves, people like Ella Hao, an accountant originally from China's northern Shandong province, now living in California.

ELLA HAO: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: She says, in 2020, she and her husband invested about $30,000 on several greenhouses on an illicit New Mexico pot farm, just days before the farm was shut down. The owners of that farm are being sued by 15 former workers from China for exploitation, and they face criminal charges for growing illegally. Other grows in California and Oklahoma linked to one of the owners have also since been raided and shut down. But marijuana grow operators are still expanding to states with even lower land costs, states like Maine, Oregon and Oklahoma. Back in New Mexico, L is now applying for asylum in the U.S. And as for Hao, the investor...

HAO: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: After the New Mexico grow was raided, a Chinese woman in California befriended her and tricked her into investing another 300,000 U.S. dollars, her family's life savings, in a marijuana grow in Oklahoma that never materialized.

HAO: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: Strapped for cash, Hao says she is still working in the marijuana industry. She's trimming plants at a registered grow operation in California. With Alice Fordham in New Mexico, I'm Emily Feng with NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.