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’ve always been a big Cavett fan. He still writes an occasional piece for the NYT.

  2. Smoking tobacco kills more people than any other substance or thing– more than booze, drugs, car wrecks, gunshot wounds, you name it. Suicide is not painless. Outlaw tobacco and quite glorifying it in our culture. It aint cute.

  3. How many of you believe that President Obama spent any time at all discussing with his aides or department heads, the issue of depriving water from pot growers? There are other fish to fry.

    1. Al – these things filter down. With a micromanager – non manager like Obama I go with “his finger is in the pie.”

  4. Guns and alcohol kill more people than pot.
    Yet neither are a schedule 1 controlled substance…
    … Go figure.

    Research pulp industry and hemp… Who ran whom from the plantation? Remember, George Washington farmed which?

    1. Max-1 – you sound like one of my many students who had just found Hi Times Magazine. Don’t forget that the United States government grew hemp during WWII. 😉

  5. I was fascinated by the people on What’s My Line, Bennett Cerf, Kitty Carlisle, they were so New York chic. Remember Derwood Kirby? One of my favorite cartoons, Roger Ramjet, did a parody about the Kerwood Derby. I’m on a stream of consciousness, my wife had George Kirby on her caseload @ the MCC in Chicago back in the 80’s. I feel better now.

  6. mespo727272 wrote “That’s a politician.”

    Speaking of politicians, Herbert Hoover allegedly promised “a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage” during his 1928 campaign. During the Vietnam War years when Americans were traveling to Canada to escape the draft, I mused that the president could resurrect the slogan, only this time declaring that there is “pot in every chicken.”

  7. A great LaGuardia story as told in wiki:

    “According to “Try and Stop Me” by Bennett Cerf, LaGuardia often officiated in municipal court. He handled routine misdemeanor cases, including, as Cerf wrote, a woman who had stolen a loaf of bread for her starving family. LaGuardia insisted on levying the fine of ten dollars. Then he said “I’m fining everyone in this courtroom fifty cents for living in a city where a person has to steal bread in order to eat!” He passed a hat and gave the fines to the defendant, who left the court with $47.50.”

  8. Fiorella is one Republican we can agree was a good politician. Maybe Jon Anderson and Lowell Weicker? There are certainly others. My parents and grandparents remember him reading the daily comics on the radio when there was a newspaper strike. They loved him and they were dyed in the wool Dems. His heritage helped a bit too!

    1. My mother was a former Republican voter who became a Democrat, but she was proud of the FACT she never once voted for Lieberman.

  9. Russ Feingold never lied that I’m aware. But, I’m talking about flat ass, premeditated lying. Not a campaign promise that isn’t honored, like “I will close Guantanamo.” I think he really did plan on doing that but then reality set in when he sat down and learned about the facts. Here’s a big liee in my mind anyway, “I you like your healthcare plan you can keep your healthcare plan. If you like your doctor you can keep your doctor.” Flat ass lie that he KNEW was a lie when he said it over and over again. The WashPo Pinocchio meter has Obama w/ many 4 Pinocchio’s. But, that is one that stick in my craw.

    1. The problem is not that Obama lied, but that YOU and others thought that he could order insurance companies to not ever cancel health insurance policies. That has been going on for years, and hopefully thanks to Obama care the insurance companies may no longer do that under spurious pretenses or at their whim It would be the height of imbecility if any person thought that NO insurance plan would or could be cancelled. His point was that if your present insurance plan met the requirements for coverage and met the standards instead of being rip offs, you would not be affected because of the law. Thus you could keep such plans in place, and in fact, most people have NOT lost their health care plans.

  10. The #1 Paul wrote “what I have learned about federal bureaucracy is that lots of people have to die before you lose your job”

    Funny how the exact same thing happens in corporations.

    During the making of the Twilight Zone, Vic Morrow, a 6-year-old actor, and a 7-year-old actor were killed (two decapitated by the helicopter rotor) during a stunt crash of a helicopter. No one in the movie business was convicted of any crime, though there were out-of-court settlements.

    During the making of The Crow, Brandon Lee was killed due to gross incompetence on the part of the firearms handlers. No one went to jail for the death.

    There are many injuries and far too many deaths in the NON-UNION movie business. In the NON-UNION movie business, it is typical for workers to work 18 hours each day, with some of them having auto accidents on the way home due to falling asleep at the wheel.

    Not to mention the many deaths at Walmart and other retailers because they failed to safely accommodate the crowds on Black Friday.

    1. I worked in an oil refinery for many years, and that was the same there. Management was immune from punishment for most of their errors, but the union workers were fired for a ding on a truck. We killed at least one worker every 18 months, and our refinery was one of the safest on the Houston ship channel. At least the company, ARCO, did finally agree to work with the union to change things for the better and succeeded to a large degree, but in such an industrial environment it is simply impossible to eliminate all risks.

      When BP took over ARCO, they destroyed that culture on the North Slope and in the refineries. The result was the blast at Texas City BP refinery which had a very weak union situation in which 25 contract workers were killed for no good reason. At our refinery when it was ARCO, I had the ability to on my own authority to shut down a unit if I felt it was unsafe. That did not obtain at the one BP took over.

  11. Nick:

    Could you name me a politician who hasn’t lied to you? I’ll give Fiorella LaGuardia as a possible exception.

  12. mespo, I am skeptical by nature and profession. I do understand your valid points that some of this Obama criticism is strictly partisan. But, much is not. When someone lies to me, as Obama has, I doubt everything they say and do. I considered Nixon the worst President in my lifetime. Obama is poised to take that trophy, in my mind. We have both seen a plaintiff or defendant be shown to have lied about one thing, and then a jury not believing ANYTHING they have said. That’s the way it works. Finally, regarding “convicting” there are no articles of impeachment or burden of proof. This is simply political @ this point. I voted for Obama in 2008, he lost me by 2010.

  13. Nick:

    I’ve heard of it; I just don’t assume it. Where is the proof Obama or his minions intervened for purely political reasons?

  14. Paul S:

    About one percent per year of the federal workforce is fired each year for incompetence or discipline reasons.

  15. mespo, You have heard of pretext? That is certainly a possibility.

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