GOLDEN, Colorado — There’s a lot of things going to pot in this world of ours. Federal water won’t be one of them.
The federal Bureau of Reclamation, which provides water to 31 million people and 10 million acres of farmland in the West through the 600 dams and reservoirs it built since the early 1900’s, has made a major policy decision: Not a drop for marijuana.
The agency announced Tuesday that it will operate its facilities “in a manner consistent” with federal drug law that prohibits the growing of marijuana. Further, it said it will report any water district that provides water to cannabis growers to the Department of Justice. That dictum applies even to states like Colorado and Washington that have legalized recreational marijuana use.
Reclamation spokesman Dan DuBray said the growing of marijuana remains illegal under the federal Controlled Substances Act of 1970. “Using federal water or facilities to that end is not permissible,” DuBray said.
The action by the Bureau of Reclamation — which made modern agriculture possible in the West but which is often criticized for destroying rivers and fish habitat and for enabling the production of water-intensive low-value crops in the arid region — was immediately denounced by marijuana advocacy and industry groups, and by members of Congress from the two states that have legalized pot.
“This decision just further underscores the absurdity behind federal marijuana laws, and the need for Congress to fix them,” said Dan Riffle, Director of Federal Policies for the Marijuana Policy Project. “Put another way, this decision says that because of the Controlled Substance Act federally-controlled water can’t be used to produce marijuana, but can be used to distill liquor or grow tobacco. I’m fine with the Bureau of Reclamation restricting water usage, but it should do so on the basis of sound science, not by deferring to outdated marijuana laws the public wants repealed.”
Added Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.): “Today’s backward-looking decision by the Bureau of Reclamation will hinder the growth and success of Colorado and Washington’s legal marijuana industry. This policy places the Bureau of Reclamation at odds with the administration’s current guidance to not interfere with the marijuana and hemp industries made lawful by voters in those states. The Bureau of Reclamation is challenging the commonly-held understanding in the arid west that water rights are state-based, an extremely delicate proposition for citizens dependent on water for their livelihood.”
“Washington state’s voters overwhelmingly approved I-502 in 2012, and our state, along with other states that have decided to legalize marijuana, should be allowed to implement these state laws without interference from the federal government,” said Representative Suzan DelBene (D-WA)
The impact of the decision will vary depending on where growers live in Colorado and Washington. Denver Water, the local supplier for Colorado’s capital and surrounding suburbs where many of the state’s growers operate, does not use water or facilities provided by the Bureau of Reclamation, but other cities along the populous Front Range do. In Washington State, the bureau controls about two-thirds of the state’s irrigated land.
It was not immediately clear whether the Department of Justice would move to enforce the water agency’s decision. Last August, Attorney General Eric Holder announced his department would allow the legal marijuana regimes established by Washington and Colorado to take effect. He outlined eight priority areas for continued federal prosecutions, including sales to minors, but using federal water to grow marijuana was not on that list.
Water rights and usage are in general determined by the states, said Taylor West, deputy director of the National Cannabis Industry Association, and “if a state has indicated that cultivating marijuana is legal…then that should be seen as a legitimate usage of water.”