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. “As a federal agency, Reclamation is obligated to adhere to federal law in the conduct of its responsibilities to the American people,” said Dan DuBray, public affairs chief for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which oversees management of federal water resources.

    “Reclamation will operate its facilities and administer its water-related contracts in a manner that is consistent with the Controlled Substances Act of 1970, as amended,” DuBray went on. “This includes locations where state law has decriminalized or authorized the cultivation of marijuana. Reclamation will refer any inconsistent uses of federal resources of which it becomes aware to the Department of Justice and coordinate with the proper enforcement authorities. Reclamation will continue to work with partner water districts and providers to ensure their important obligations can continue to be met.”

    Isn’t that simply following the law as written.

  2. mespo, Maybe the biggest blow to progressivism has been struck by this Administration, who announced they had govt. solution to problems and then proceeded to piss on both legs for 6 years.

  3. mespo – what I have learned about federal bureaucracy is that lots of people have to die before you lose your job.

  4. Most of the criticism here comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of how the federal bureaucracy works. 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. If the agency strikes out on their own contrary to the opinion of the in house lawyers, the decision aker pays the price if they are wrong and heads roll. In rare cases the administration can flex its muscle through the agency, but that is the exception rather than the rule. I see no evidence Obama or any other admin. official was involved in this and to suggest otherwise says more about the objectivity of the accuser than the political motivations of the accused.

  5. here’s a question why exactly is the corporation so dead set against legalizing marijuana ? especially since the pharma industry peddles it as a appetite stimulant in the form of a pill named marinol.. i know because i took the pill for years to stimulant my appetite.

  6. Of course it’s political. Federal drug policy, like federal policy in many other areas of government, has become virtually incoherent. A foolish consistency may be the hobgoblin of small minds, but consistency in the application of the rule of law is essential. I’m a Democrat by tradition, but my party has become a philosophical shambles.

  7. Paul, You would mess up a wet dream. I know that, I am referencing the Tonto, “White man speak w/ forked tongue.” Why don’t you get your alma mater’s mind right. First the jaywalking professor, and now the feminist prof giving extra credit to female students who don’t shave their legs or pits! Is Tempe the southwest Berkley? Or, are they trying to compete w/ Tucson? “Keep Tempe Very Unique.”

    1. Nick – I an NOT responsible for the actions of my alma mater. I have stated my views on the professor who was arrested (the officer is currently on paid suspension). I have seen extra credit given for worse then not shaving your pits. The current president of ASU, Michael Crowe has named it the School of the Twenty-first Century. No one knows what that means, but oh well.

  8. Bob, “Forked tongue” is a racist term that harms Indians. What an insensitive, horrible, thoughtless, heartless, privileged, white, male, you are. The Obamaists are up to DEFCON 4. There’s no rational discussion possible.

    1. Nick – the reference is to the serpent from the Garden of Eden. Snakes have forked tongues.

  9. Sad that Obama seeks to maintain this Reagan war on drugs…
    … Seeing that Obama had admitted to having been a smoker.

    But alas… He has a tradition to follow.
    And the jails keep overflowing, and privatized.

    Who benefits?

    1. Well all your insert said is that the Obama and the government will not send in the troops to enforce Federal law on that. So how is that speaking with forked tongue? The fact is that the Federal government cannot PROMOTE growing pot as YOU seem to think it should.

      Then you overlook the rather obvious fact that the water boards have to decide which is more important, food or dope? Which side do you come down on with this scarce resource? Think that Congress or the legislatures should make the decisions? That would be entertaining to see the pot lobbyists working there passing out free joints. Of course, after they all get the munchies, they might want to reconsider about the importance of producing more food.

  10. Villefort: “The feds deem marijuana production and distribution a federal crime.”

    So in August of 2013 when the Justice Department said it would not seek to pre-empt the state laws of Washington and Colorado legalizing marijuana; what was that?

    Villefort: “Until it’s repealed, no federal agency may encourage or promote federal assets being used to flaunt or violate federal law.”

    Ah, yes.


    Do tell.

  11. Nick Spinelli

    We all of a sudden have a bunch of former hippies sounding like Nancy Reagan!
    What you mean “we” Spinny?

    1. Dredd – those experiments you are talking about are run by Obama’s DOD. I am not sure whose side you are trying to be on here: Obama or anti-Obama.?

  12. We all of a sudden have a bunch of former hippies sounding like Nancy Reagan!

  13. mespo, Obama is ignoring many laws. Some he wrote and signed! His diligence in continuing the war on drugs vis a vis the innocuous cannabis should be highly suspect to anyone thinking critically. You Obama folks have really circled the wagons.

  14. This is a strawman attack and it clearly doesn’t strike me as political at all. In fact, it is in support of the rule of law that we always cite around here. The feds deem marijuana production and distribution a federal crime. Until it’s repealed, no federal agency may encourage or promote federal assets being used to flaunt or violate federal law. Releasing water is just that. The fault here is the federal law and not the people sworn to uphold that law. I suspect the agency has an opinion from its inspector general saying that any efforts to support a violation of federal law is in fact a crime in itself — one that the agency cannot be complicit with.

    Many of you may not like Obama (and boy that’s an understatement) but blaming him for requiring an agency to follow federal law sure takes the proverbial cake. This just in: Obama is not the locus of all our problems.

    1. mespo – the problem is that Obama is erratic in how laws are being enforced. On the one hand we have the town being sued because it won’t issue a license to a pot shop because businesses have to comply with local, state and federal law. In this case the feds say it is okay. Now we have the Bureau of Reclamation saying no water for pot farms. Can’t the Obama administration make up its mind?

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