President_Barack_Obama220px-Water_droplet_blue_bg05Below is my column today in USA Today on the Obama Administration’s decision to cut off water to legal marijuana growers. Notably, the business concern today for the rollout of legal pot sales in Washington is greater demand than supply. I previously wrote about how a little known board had effectively moved to end the debate over the Redskins name, an example of agencies increasingly intervening in social and political disputes. This move by the Bureau of Reclamation is a prime example of such intervention into political disputes and a troubling precedent for the future.

When voters in Washington state and Colorado legalized possession and sale of recreational marijuana in 2012, federal officials were not happy. They will be less happy Tuesday when pot officially goes on sale in Washington. Though the Obama administration has pledged to respect state laws, it is quietly going in the opposite direction by cutting off water to the growers. The idea seems to be that if the administration cannot dry up the public support for legalization, it will just dry up the plants themselves.

Like areas from health care to immigration, a sharp disconnect between voters and their government is growing by the day. The administration and Congress are losing the debate over legalization.

Many citizens do not see the logic or necessity in the crackdown on pot. Support for legalization is soaring. In 1987, only 16% supported legalization. That increased to 26% in 1996 and 43% in 2012. It now stands at 55%. Two states have responded with legalization, others have taken a smaller step of decriminalization, and 20 states have legalized medical marijuana over the opposition of the federal government.

Democrats’ dilemma

220px-US-DOI-BureauOfReclamation-Seal.svgWith other programs such as health care already endangering Democrats in the next election, the administration does not want to openly oppose the wishes of more than half of the population. With one hand, it allows state experimentation, while the other hand, the Bureau of Reclamation turns off the spigot by ordering irrigation districts not to distribute federal water to farmers breaking national drug laws. No water, no pot.

The use of water as a weapon is not new in the West, where “water wars” were once common among ranches and even states. The federal government began in 1902 to take control over such waters with programs to build dams and waterways. What began as a few dozen projects grew into a massive system, in which the federal government controlled a significant portion of the water in 17 states with the construction of more than 600 dams and reservoirs. It is now the nation’s largest water wholesale operation, supplying to more than 31 million people and one out of five farmers in the West. It is not just water. The government’s 53 power plants annually provide more than 40 billion kilowatt hours that support millions of homes.

Though some have long chaffed at federal control over this essential resource, the government has insisted that its projects are designed to simply maximize the use of the resource. Indeed, with the growing national crisis over the loss of drinking water and many states experiencing droughts, the role of a neutral federal agency has never been more important.

That is why this latest move is so dangerous. The government already coerces states by withholding money unless they follow federal mandates. If the feds can now withhold water or electricity, too, that stranglehold will tighten.

The government supplies the water that sustains 10 million acres of farmland, and the farms that produce 60% of the nation’s vegetables and 25% of its fruits and nuts.

In Washington, that translates to the water for two-thirds of the state’s irrigated land.

Legal hypocrisy

Bureau spokesman Dan DuBray insists that the agency “is obligated to adhere to federal law.” However, that position is inconsistent with the actions of the Obama administration in other areas.

I testified in Congress on Obama’s non-enforcement orders issued in areas such as immigration and drug enforcement. In addition, Obama has issued controversial orders that effectively amend federal laws in ways that Congress had rejected. It rings rather hollow for the administration now to claim that it has no choice but to take this action to indirectly support drug laws when it has ordered the non-enforcement of so many others.

This is even less plausible when one considers that the Justice Department has altered its enforcement of the drug laws in light of state legalization. The administration is directly curtailing enforcement of the Controlled Substances Act, but a water agency is changing its operations to enforce that same law by other means. The agency could have simply supplied water to every state neutrally. Instead, it is taking action to punish these states.

The shutting off of the water in Washington and Colorado for these growers is not about pot but politics. Carl von Clausewitz once observed that “war is the continuation of politics by other means.” The same can be said about the opening salvo in a new water war.

Jonathan Turley, the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University, is a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors.


  1. I recently read where that gargantuan NSA data center was going to be an immense water-hog, and that Utah (I believe) was going to turn off their water. Sounds like a super-big waste of water, especially just to enhance the police state.

  2. First, the excuse is Obama is engaged in a “compromise”; when there is no evidence of any mutual concession.

    Then we’re told that “The feds deem marijuana production and distribution a federal crime;” ignoring the fact that the DOJ assured the states of Oregon and Washington that they would not seek to pre-empt state law.

    Then we’re told that in Obama’s administration “no federal agency may encourage or promote federal assets being used to flaunt or violate federal law;” — denying the modus operandi of an administration that has declared to “go it alone” while making a mockery of the very principle it is allegedly adhering to.

    Then we’re told that the “the rather obvious fact [is] that the water boards have to decide which is more important, food or dope;” — that it’s a matter of allocation of scarce resources. This denies the fact that the head of Reclamation itself said it was strictly a policy decision.

    Then we’re told “Agency heads are not dialing up the President to get his take on their decision making. Instead there is an elaborate system of agency due diligence to make as certain as it can that the agency’s decision comports with federal law.” To accept this argument we must first ignore the president’s input on the DOJ decision on respecting state’s rights regarding marijuana laws. We must then ignore that the Secretary of the Interior, who controls Reclamation, serves at the pleasure of the president and that all presidents are impotent when it comes to shaping the administrative decisions of their cabinets.

    The phenomena responsible for the aforesaid false, unprincipled and self-contradictory babble in desperate defense of partisan chicanery is known as “sucking up.”

    • I should have known better than to expect a straight answer from Bob. You never say what YOU think Obama should do.

  3. Should read “and then believe that all presidents are impotent when it comes to shaping the administrative decisions of their cabinets.”

  4. mespo, I forgot to mention corroboration that this water horseshit is a pretext. The DOJ does not allow legal cannabis dispensaries to have banking privileges. They are forced to deal strictly in cash and make huge cash deposits. This sets up a scenario for violent robberies and then the DOJ can say, “See, it is a dangerous scourge.” This administration is inept and corrupt. For the most part, Nixon was just corrupt, Carter just inept.

    • Dredd – the Obama administration is not making their claim on drought grounds, rather on federal law. BTW, here is Arizona we are hoping for a wet year that will take the edge off of our drought problems.

  5. Randyjet,

    A man of integrity who promises he’s going to respect state sovereignty does not find an under the table way of breaking that promise.

    You don’t need me to tell you that he should direct reclamation to supply the water and not contradict himself or the DOJ policy.

  6. That statement about a President with a finger in the pie is often confused by a President with a cigar in the pie. And pie is in the eye of the beholder. Obama does not give a rat’s arse about whether pot plants in bumfuk Egypt get watered or not.

    • Al – leadership comes from the top. Holder would not do what he does if he did not think he had coverage. Actually it could be Valerie Jarrett making the decisions but Obama is not stopping her. No decision is still a decision.

  7. Paul C. Schulte

    Dredd – the Obama administration is not making their claim on drought grounds, rather on federal law. BTW, here is Arizona we are hoping for a wet year that will take the edge off of our drought problems.
    In other words they wanted to assuage the emotional short circuiting of the wrong-wing schizos who say they love states rights … up to a point … except the state voters’ marijuana voting rights … er… their marijuana voting wrongs.

    Wrong-wingers say states’ rights are ok until they are not ok.

    Wrong-wingers are not dyslexic they are KO.

    Whatever, but they could have taken some Spinny logic and said it was because of drought.

    BTW, I hope the expected El Niño brings Arizona lots of rain in a measure that does not cause flooding, but rather causes a decrease in the drought there.

    Arizona has enough to contend with without the dichotomy of flooding and drought at the “same time” IMO (Conundrum: Floods with Droughts (and Extinctions)).

    The feds are probably jealous that weed does better than vegetables in our schizophrenic climate.

    In closing, do you know how many republicans there are in the administration who stay there no matter who is presnit?

    Here is an example of a republican being spied upon by an administration that spies on republicans and democrats alike.

    • Dredd – thanks for the good wishes. We do not have sewer systems so when it rains hard, it floods. If you live here long enough you learn work arounds.

  8. From our friends at the Onion: Big New about air quality in Chicago.

    CHICAGO—Highlighting increasingly dangerous conditions within the city, a new study published Monday by Northwestern University’s Department of Environmental Studies revealed that approximately 75 percent of the air in Chicago is now composed of bullets. “Far exceeding the levels of carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and even oxygen, bullets now constitute three-fourths of Chicago’s air supply,” said atmospheric scientist and study coauthor John Molina, stressing that the dense and widespread deposits of jacketed lead and copper in the air pose severe and potentially fatal health risks to all Chicago residents. “According to our measurements, the proportion of bullets in Chicago’s overall air composition is significantly higher than that of other cities with comparable sizes and population densities. Frankly, if this trend continues—and there is unfortunately little evidence suggesting otherwise—living safely within the confines of Chicago will be almost impossible.” Molina went on to suggest that Chicago’s 2.7 million residents stay indoors whenever possible in order to minimize their exposure.

    • Bill, If he were going after legal growers, they would be sitting in JAIL, as Bush did. He is not required, nor able to promote growing pot as YOU would like. Of course, if he did, Turley would again, be saying he is an imperial president who is ignoring the laws he is supposed to enforce. It is called heads I win, tails you lose. Think that is fair?

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