U.S. Bans Federal Irrigation Waters For Legal Pot Growing

By McCarton Ackerman 05/27/14

Despite weed being legal in Colorado and Washington, growers still have to contend with marijuana's illegal status with the federal government.

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Although recreational marijuana use is now legal at the state level in Colorado and Washington, the federal government is making it clear that it won’t become legal nationally any time soon.

After a month of speculation, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation re-clarified a law that has been in place for decades by stating last week that marijuana growers may not use federal irrigation waters for their business. The agency provides irrigation for millions of acres of agriculture in Washington and Colorado, but Dan DuBray, chief of public affairs, said in a statement that “as a federal agency, Reclamation is obligated to adhere to federal law in the conduct of its responsibilities to the American people.”

However, the bureau will not enforce the law themselves and merely inform the justice department when they believe federal irrigation waters are being used for marijuana growing. It’s also unclear what sorts of sanctions anyone violating the law would face, but it would likely be in the form of a fine rather than prison time. “Pretty soon, it’s going to be air,” said Elan Nelson, business consultant for Medicine Man dispensary in Denver. "They're going to say you can't use the air because it belongs to the federal government. It's just ridiculous."

Nineteen states have currently legalized medical marijuana while several other states continue to have discussions about both medicinal and recreational use. However, banks and other institutions subject to federal oversight have refused to work with legal marijuana industries. Federal authorities have also continued to target these businesses.

"The general feeling is that there are ways to get water, if one source closes, another will open,” said Naomi McCulloch with Green Lion Farms in Seattle, and a member of the Association of Cannabis Breeders and Growers. "It takes a lot of fortitude and planning to be a farmer, of any crop. If the government throwing up obstacles to our success stopped us, we wouldn't have made it this far.”

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McCarton Ackerman is a freelance writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon. He has been a contributor for The Fix since October 2011, writing on a wide range of topics ranging from medical marijuana in Colorado to the world's sexiest drug smugglers. Follow him on Linkedin and Twitter.