A Marijuana Boom Led Her to Oklahoma. Then Anti-Drug Agents Seized Her Money and Raided Her Home. — ProPublica

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Qiu He remembers sitting handcuffed on her front porch, her two small children huddled next to her, as state anti-drug agents carrying semi-automatic rifles trooped in and out of her house.

Serving a search warrant, the agents had forced open the front door and arrested her after she allegedly resisted them, according to an affidavit. During the raid last April, agents said they found ledgers, bags of marijuana, a loaded .380-caliber pistol and other evidence they collected as part of an investigation alleging that she is a central figure in an illegal scheme involving at least 23 marijuana operations in central Oklahoma.

She spent the night in jail. Almost a year later, authorities have still not charged her with a crime. But a few days after her arrest, a judge signed an order freezing her bank accounts and agents seized almost a million dollars from the accounts as suspected criminal proceeds. She is fighting the state’s action to confiscate the money, saying she did nothing illegal.

The ledgers, He said, were records for her legitimate businesses. Her biggest tenants are marijuana businesses, which deal mostly in cash, as does the clientele of her consulting firm catering to Chinese immigrants. The gun, she said, was legally purchased by her husband.

“At this point, I don’t love Oklahoma,” said He, who also uses the first name Tina. “I don’t feel safe here. I don’t feel secure here.”

On a recent sunny Sunday afternoon, she was at the bubble tea shop she owns in Edmond, the upscale suburb of Oklahoma City where she lives. The stylishly dressed 39-year-old wore a fuzzy black baseball cap over her short, burgundy-dyed hair. She was joined by a friend, another entrepreneur in the marijuana business, who asked to be identified only as Sharon, the English name she uses.

The eatery, called Oklaboba, is a cheerful, brightly lit space, and business was brisk. But the conversation at the women’s table was somber. Sharon mentioned the murder in January of an Asian friend: Robbers invaded his marijuana farm in rural Okfuskee County and shot him in the neck. There have been no arrests.

The two women said many Asian immigrants they know invested their life savings in Oklahoma’s marijuana boom only to see their licenses revoked, their crop destroyed and their assets seized when authorities accuse them of operating illegally. They said anti-Asian bias plays a role in the state’s crackdown on marijuana growers and has caused people who are trying to do business legally to lose everything.

Since the number of licensed marijuana farms peaked at more than 9,400 in December 2021, the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority and the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs Control have taken a more aggressive approach toward license compliance.

Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond also formed his office’s own organized crime task force that regularly conducts raids on alleged illegal operations.

“We are sending a clear message to Mexican drug cartels, Chinese crime syndicates and all others who are endangering public safety through these heinous operations,” Drummond said. “And that message is to get the hell out of Oklahoma.”

Jeremiah Ross, an Oklahoma City attorney who worked with He, said he has represented dozens of Asian clients accused of breaking marijuana laws over the past few years. Ross said he sees a distinct anti-Asian bias in marijuana licensing and law enforcement.

“The white folks and the locals aren’t having any problems with their [license] renewals,” Ross said. “They’re not having armed guards show up at their grow facility and chop all their plants down.”

Mark Woodward, spokesperson for the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics, rejected such allegations. He said the agency “has identified and shut down illegal grows, as well as made arrests on illegal farms tied to organized crime from China, Mexico, Russia, Bulgaria, Armenia and the Italian mob over the last three years, as well as numerous American-owned operations.”

Woodward said he did not have readily available information on He’s case and why she has not been charged.

Porsha Riley, spokesperson for the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority, said the agency is committed to fairness and equity for all license holders.

“We want to assure the public and the medical marijuana industry that we do not discriminate against any licensee,” Riley said. “Our enforcement and compliance efforts are conducted impartially, without bias or prejudice. We remain dedicated to upholding these principles and ensuring a level playing field for all.”

Sharon, who asked that her full name be withheld because she fears retaliation, said she no longer trusts the state to regulate her marijuana business fairly.

“Tell me it’s not racism, because Asians are absolutely feeling it,” Sharon said. Referring to the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics, she said, “A lot of people are afraid to poke the bear.”

He’s encounters with law enforcement remind her of the authoritarian regime in her native land, which she left seeking freedom, she said.

“In China, there is one voice and you are not allowed to speak,” she said. “Oklahoma is worse than China.”

Her defiance is atypical in a community that tends to avoid public conflict — and criticism of the Chinese government. ProPublica and The Frontier reported last week that Chinese organized crime has come to dominate the illicit marijuana market in Oklahoma and across the U.S., and that the criminal networks have alleged connections to the Chinese state. He’s story offers a view from inside an immigrant community that she says feels besieged on multiple fronts.

She said she studied business administration and management at Renmin University in Beijing and came to the United States in 2010. In 2020, after years of making good money in commercial real estate development in New York, the economic and cultural disruption of the pandemic made her think it was time for a change, she said.

At the time, she lived in Flushing, a large Chinese immigrant enclave. She was “a city girl” who couldn’t find Oklahoma on the map, she said. But she liked country music and thought a slower-paced life on the plains would let her spend more time with her kids.

“I was thinking I wanted to restart my life,” she said. “So I wanted to go out to see what’s going on.”

She arrived at the peak of Oklahoma’s marijuana boom: a get-rich-quick frenzy of investors, workers, gangsters and money converging from across the country and as far away as China. At first, she said, she wanted to develop ventures serving the burgeoning Chinese population. She opened Oklaboba and bought rental properties in Oklahoma City. Like many other newcomers, she shuttled back and forth with her children to New York, where her husband remained.

She said she got involved in marijuana after helping the owner of a farm who she says had been taken advantage of by a law firm operating a “straw owner” scheme. The 2018 medical marijuana law requires marijuana farms to be 75% owned by residents who have lived in the state at least two years. But some attorneys in the state have paid longtime residents to pose as majority owners to get licenses and buy property. With He’s help, the man was able to get full ownership of the business in his own name and get out from under the straw owner arrangement, she said.

He said she established a consulting firm for investors in the cannabis industry and accumulated hundreds of Chinese clients. Records show she was the registered agent for numerous marijuana and real estate holding companies, and she owned the properties on which many of those companies were located.

She says it was all legitimate. But she soon found herself in the crosshairs of law enforcement. The investigation of a suspected trafficking ring led state anti-drug agents to a New York commercial real estate developer who was an associate of He, court records show. Authorities allege that she was his business partner in marijuana-related activity in Oklahoma, but she said it was only a buyer-seller relationship, as she had bought businesses with active marijuana licenses from him.

Investigators came to suspect that the developer and He were “heavily involved” in the illicit marijuana trade and orchestrating straw owner schemes, court records say. Agents busted a series of illegal grows allegedly linked to He and the developer. When agents raided two sites one morning last April and a tenant called He, she rushed to the property to confront them and demand a search warrant, court records say. What happened next, He said, felt like retaliation for challenging the Oklahoma Bureau of Narcotics.

That evening, a well-armed team of agents showed up at her house with another search warrant. The warrant shows it was requested by agents after the confrontation with He at her business and was signed by a judge only minutes before the raid on her house that night.

The raid left her children terrified, her marriage under strain and her house in shambles, she said.

“My house was destroyed,” she said. “I couldn’t do anything. The jail, they were treating me like a criminal.”

Although He said the pistol that agents found was legally owned by her husband, not her, she said she has taken firearms courses and owns a gun for protection in an increasingly dangerous business.

Ross said when he heard that He’s house was being searched, he was surprised. She was a small business owner, someone who helped the Chinese community in Oklahoma City, the mom of two young boys, not some mobster, Ross said.

It was already night when Ross arrived at He’s house to see if she needed help. She and the children were still sitting on the porch as agents continued their search. Ross was denied entry by law enforcement.

The agents “snatched her up, left her kids there, took her to jail and didn’t release her until the following morning. And they never filed a single charge,” Ross said. “Why in God’s name are they going after her? This is out of control.”

Despite her ordeal, He considers herself lucky because other Chinese immigrants don’t have the financial means or the language skills to fight back. Marijuana in Oklahoma has become a “lose-lose” scenario thanks to what she called a byzantine system choked with costly compliance requirements and arbitrary decisions.

“You set up a game and didn’t know how to play it,” she said. “And yet they call me the super game-player.”

Many Chinese investors have lost faith in the Oklahoma authorities, fearing they will be the next target, she said. Once her legal problems are resolved, she wants to go somewhere else. Maybe Maryland, which just legalized recreational marijuana. Maybe it’s time to think big, she said: a marijuana Starbucks, a marijuana Uber.

At the same time, she’s not sure it’s worth it.

“I don’t want to do this business anymore,” she said. “I don’t want the pressure.”

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