A cannabis cultivator in Humboldt County, California, has been ordered to pay $1.75 million for building and diverting water from illegal onstream reservoirs without obtaining the required permits from the state authorities. The settlement was approved by a Superior Court judge and is one of the largest penalties imposed for illegal cannabis cultivation in the state.
The Settlement Details
The cannabis grower, Joshua Sweet, owner of The Hills LLC and Shadow Light Ranch LLC, was accused of destroying wetlands, converting woodlands, and failing to obtain permits from the California Water Boards and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) for his cannabis operation. He was also charged with violating the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) and the Porter-Cologne Water Quality Control Act.
As part of the settlement, Sweet must pay $500,000 to the Division of Water Rights, $175,000 to the North Coast Water Board, and $75,000 to CDFW, all over five years. He must also restore the damaged habitat, remove the illegal reservoirs, and comply with all the state regulations for cannabis cultivation.
The settlement is a result of years of investigation and enforcement actions by the state agencies, who discovered the illegal activities on Sweet’s properties in 2019 and 2020. The agencies conducted multiple inspections, issued notices of violation, and filed civil complaints against Sweet and his companies.
The Environmental Impacts
The illegal cannabis cultivation on Sweet’s properties had significant impacts on the environment, especially on the water resources and the wildlife habitat. According to the state agencies, Sweet built and diverted water from four illegal onstream reservoirs, which altered the natural flow and quality of the water in the streams. He also cleared and graded large areas of land, which resulted in erosion, sedimentation, and loss of vegetation.
The illegal activities affected the North Coast region of the state, which accounts for 35% of the state’s freshwater runoff and is home to many endangered and threatened species, such as salmon, steelhead, and spotted owls. The state agencies said that the illegal cannabis cultivation posed a threat to the public health and safety, as well as the legal cannabis market, which follows strict environmental standards.
The State’s Efforts
The settlement is part of the state’s efforts to crack down on illegal cannabis cultivation and protect the environment from its harmful effects. The state has established a Unified Cannabis Enforcement Taskforce (UCETF), which coordinates the actions of various state agencies, such as the CDFW, the Water Boards, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Food and Agriculture, to combat the illegal cannabis market.
The UCETF has been conducting raids, seizures, and prosecutions of illegal cannabis growers across the state, especially on public lands. In 2023, the UCETF seized over 189,000 pounds of cannabis, eradicated over 317,000 plants, and served 188 search warrants. The UCETF also educates the public and the cannabis industry about the environmental and legal consequences of illegal cannabis cultivation.
The state is also planning to transition the CAMP program, which is a seasonal eradication program that has been operating since 1983, into a year-round task force called EPIC, which stands for Eradication and Prevention of Illicit Cannabis. The EPIC task force will allow the state to expand its cannabis enforcement work and investigate and prosecute civil and criminal cases with a focus on environmental, economic, and labor impacts from illegal cultivation.