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. Okay, so I’m the only one here who was reminded of “Chinatown” with this story?

    Morty: “In the middle of a drought and the water commissioner drowns! Only in L.A.”

  2. Nick,

    The problem arises when they actually believe the BS they’re peddling.

  3. Gittes: “OK, go home, but in case you’re interested, your husband was murdered. Somebody’s been dumping thousands of tons of water from the city’s reservoirs and we’re supposed to be in the middle of a drought. He found out about it and he was killed. There’s a waterlogged drunk in the morgue, involuntary manslaughter if anybody wants to take the trouble – which they don’t. It seems like half the city is trying to cover it all up, which is fine by me. But Mrs. Mulwray, I goddamned near lost my nose. And I like it. I like breathing through it. And I still think that you’re hiding something.”

  4. Bob, Esq. A mismatch! Heavyweights like you should not be fighting bantamweights.

  5. randyjet: “I find this objection to be silly. What Obama is doing is called COMPROMISE.”

    I’m sorry, but exactly how is Obama “settling a dispute by mutual concession” here?

    “I know that is a bad word for many, but he could be strict and enforce Federal laws and shut down pot production completely. Think THAT would be a good idea?”

    I see, so we should be thankful his highness is a merciful and modest hypocrite.

    Got it.

    1. Bob, you posit a heads I win, tails you lose kind of argument. Just what do you think he should do then? If he spends millions of dollars to send in Federal marshals or the US Army to shut down the pot growers and strictly enforce Federal law, you can then blast him for doing so, and for spending money that Congress has not appropriated.

      Of course, you miss the obvious point that denying water from Federal projects IS enforcing the law, but I guess you are for that? On one hand by not using force to stop pot production, you then hit him for simply denying Federal resources for violating the law. Which side are you on? It is obvious to all that you are on the anything goes as long as it is against Obama side. Talk about hypocrisy! Can you give us a straight answer as to what YOU think he should do?

  6. SWM, I’ve only been here since Aug 2012. Maybe if just seems twice as long.

  7. Nick, Jill and i have a history here going back to 2010. No one is getting “snookered”

  8. It’s doesn’t really give other commenters much credit for having the ability to use their own discretion.

  9. It’s odd how some folks feel it’s their role to ‘warn’ and ‘council’ other commenters on how or who they should respond to.

  10. Jikll, Don’t be snookered by SWM. Read her comments and links CAREFULLY. Rand Paul is NOT saying this law should be used to enforce Fed cannabis laws. The spin folks are saying it COULD be used. We know any law “could be” used for virtually anY purpose. That’s why we need many fewer laws. The law of unintended consequences has taught us that time and time again. With propaganda, you have to be reading and analyzing carefully. The Obama folks are desperate. And, “Desperate times call for desperate measures.” You need to discern the folks not worth responding to. You also need to know the folks you need to scrutinize. SWM is the latter.

  11. SMM,

    Obama is already cracking down on legal pot in states like CO and WA. He is doing so right now. He doesn’t need to be forced by anyone. Basically, he and Rand Paul are in agreement on cracking down on legal pot use.

    I’d say that makes them both hypocrites, one for having used it (Obama) and now trying to deny it to those who are entitled and or need it, and the other (Rand) who claims to champion state’s rights. But apparently, they are hypocrites in complete agreement on the issue!

  12. JT, You have become The Riddler regarding deletions. But, I take you @ your word.

  13. “Could use” are the operative words there, SWM. Rand’s old man is a cult hero w/ cannabis users throughout this country, and the apple has not fallen far from the tree in that regard. We have seen the slippery slope in all types of laws. That’s why we need much less lawmaking!

  14. “Rand Paul (R-KY) has thrown his support behind legislation that Republicans could use to force President Barack Obama to crack down on legal marijuana in states like Colorado and Washington.” nick, If you think what he said is hilarious, ltake it up with him. Marijuana laws need reforming along with immigration laws. Again, a do nothing congress……

  15. SWM, I’m sure Blouise is pleased to read it looks like the Republican Convention in 2016 will be Cleveland instead of Dallas. Electoral votes rule.

Comments are closed.