WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. law enforcement agencies seized over 100 homes in the Sacramento, California-area this week in what the U.S. Justice Department on Wednesday said was part of a sweeping crackdown on a criminal marijuana growing operation funded by China-based criminal groups.
In a two-day sweep that started on Tuesday, the Justice Department said hundreds of federal agents and local police executed search warrants at about 74 homes and two business offices believed to be used for marijuana-growing operations.
At the same time, the Justice Department filed civil forfeiture actions against 100 homes, a legal action allowing the government to confiscate assets if there is probable cause to believe a crime was committed.
U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has made cracking down on illegal drugs one of his priorities since taking over the helm of the Justice Department last year.
Sessions, who has made no secret of his disdain for marijuana, in January ended an Obama-era policy that called on prosecutors not to prioritize bringing federal marijuana cases in states where it is legal.
The policy change came shortly after California formally launched the world’s largest regulated market for recreational pot.
The operation announced on Wednesday, however, relates to underground illegal marijuana-growing operations, and not those following California’s stringent regulatory and licensing regime.
Federal law enforcement officials said in a statement that the criminal organization targeted through the home seizures used foreign funds to purchase the homes in order to use them for growing marijuana.
Down payments on the properties were financed by wire transfers from the province of Fujian, China, and the pot that was grown in the homes was later distributed outside California to other parts of the United States, the statement said.
The Justice Department said the operation represented one of the largest-ever residential forfeiture efforts in U.S. criminal history.
In addition to seizing the homes, the government also seized 61,050 marijuana plants, more than 440 pounds (200 kg) of processed marijuana and 15 firearms.
Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch, editing by G Crosse