May 07, 2012

Who's in Charge Here?

Further to the previous post, Obama head cheerleader Andrew Sullivan asks "why did Obama cave to the DEA" on medical cannabis and launch a draconian crackdown despite a clear pledge not to? (He links to Jacob Sullum, whose only-thing-I-can-come-up-with idea that the campaign could be worried about a "soft on drugs" perception seems quite implausible and anachronistic to me. "Soft on crime" still has a sting, but there's no big voting bloc keen to deny cancer patients access to medical marijuana, as the initiatives themselves, and the non-campaign-killing effectiveness of the President's own rhetoric way back when, attest. The question still stands, as far as I'm concerned.)

But here's Sullivan's answer:

the other option is that the abuse of medical marijuana laws in, say, California and Colorado, has weakened his hand vis-a-vis the DEA. Both states have effectively legalized the drug for recreational use, with a fig-leaf over their juicy, sticky buds. I'm with Sullum and wish the DEA would back off. But I also wish some states had exercized more discretion and care in allowing for medical marijuana.
Is that how it works, really? The President of the United states has a policy in mind, but in order to execute it, he must first persuade his own Drug Enforcement Agency to agree to let him do it? So he knocks on their door, hat in hand. "Come on guys, hear me out: just let me do it my way, just this once. Please?" The DEA responds: "okay, Mr. President. You've got five minutes. Make it good." The President of the United States makes his proposal, hoping against hope that his "hand" is good enough to persuade the DEA to allow him to instruct his Justice Department to execute his preferred policy. Fingers crossed. Unfortunately, the irresponsible voters of California and Colorado have weakened his hand too much. The DEA remains unmoved. "Sorry, Mr. President. That was a nice presentation, but you'll have to do better than that. Maybe you should tell your fun-loving buddies in California and Colorado to clean up their act before you come bothering us with this again. Miss Jones will show you out." "I fold," says the President of the United States. "You guys are just too good." Well, yes, you win some, you lose some. Too bad we screwed it up with all this "voting."

For all I know, that is how it works. But here's another option: he was lying. I have no idea why. Or maybe it was just campaign rhetoric we were never meant to take seriously, and it was his intention all along to continue and to amplify the previous administration's policy. But, as far as I can see, the DEA is under the control of the Department of Justice, which is an arm of the executive. The executive is Obama. And yet: "It's California's fault," says Sullivan. "I don't think it originated from the Obama administration" says the director of Americans for Safe Access. Really? The DEA is the Obama administration. Right?

Posted by Dr. Frank at May 7, 2012 08:31 PM

Think of this as two competing constituencies:

1) people like you & me who favor legalizing drugs

2) the DEA and its patrons, hangers-on etc. in Washington DC

Constituency #1 is large in number, but small in impact. Where are they going to go? Obama has nothing to lose by offending them and nothing to gain (really) by pleasing them. They're already his by default.

Constituency #2 is presumably relatively small in number, but possibly (for all I know?) large in impact. Maybe pleasing them helps him accrue favors, build coalitions, pay off crony supporters, etc.

If the up-side / down-side calculus is anything like this, it's really a no-brainer.

Posted by: Sonic Charmer at May 7, 2012 09:13 PM

I suppose so, SC. I find it very curious that so many smart, engaged people (in "Constituency #1") will go to such lengths to cultivate the illusion that the DEA is an alien entity at odds with the president, when in fact it is quite obviously enforcing his policies. I guess it's the same thing with gay marriage, "wars of choice," Guantanamo, the surveillance state, etc. People are determined to project their own tastes and predilections on to this guy, without regard to what he actually does, even when he clearly states his positions to the contrary. I was as guilty of this as anyone, but at this point those who fail to see that Obama is an enthusiastic "drug warrior" as bad as any of them are simply delusional.

But of course, your main point is right and it's mine too: he's not going to lose any state over this, so he might as well do what he likes. Unfortunately, what he likes is awful.

Posted by: Dr. Frank at May 8, 2012 01:25 PM


What do you believe in unitary executive theory? Fascist. You know that the Pres. can not hire, fire, promote, demote, reassign, impound funds from, etc. members of the bureaucracy. Do you think they are going to volunteer to reduce their own "impact"?

Ever watch "Yes. minister?" It's pretty awesome.

Posted by: josh at May 8, 2012 04:59 PM

Yes, Josh, Yes Minister is indeed awesome.

I don't know about UET, but whether I believe in it or not, the president has wide parameters in determining enforcement priorities, for good or ill. The executive exercises this sort of discretion all the time. In the immediate case, he said his administration wasn't going to crack down on medical cannabis in situations where those involved were in compliance with state law; then, it started cracking down on them. Either he changed his mind, or he was lying all along about his intentions. Fair enough: he won't be the first president to do either of those. I don't like it but my not liking it isn't the point. My point is, it is not a case of a rogue agency and the president being powerless to rein it in. My analysis is, he's not interested in reining it in. i.e., they are carrying out his policy.

Posted by: Dr. Frank at May 8, 2012 05:49 PM

They are all rogue agencies. I was at Treasury (and my agency was transfered to DHS) during Bush's second term. Any authority the politicals had was certainly not felt by me or anyone in my section.

Posted by: josh at May 8, 2012 09:57 PM

Now *that* is interesting. So, what would happen, do you reckon, if "the politicals" did, as a matter of policy, try to end the war on drugs. Nothing?

Posted by: Dr. Frank at May 8, 2012 11:40 PM

Most likely you'd end up with new politicals. I'll say this. Although, I was not anybody important, I did once selectively leak something to the Washington Post at the behest of somebody slightly more important. I won't say anymore.

Incidentally, everyone uses the term "politicals" to describe the "politicals". At least they do in both DHS and Justice (my Dad was a section chief in the DOJ). Those would be mostly, but not, exclusively Plum Book appointees.

Posted by: josh at May 9, 2012 12:53 AM

Oh yeah, and my sister in Law is a real life Sir Humphrey to an Assistant Attorney General. Actually, maybe my Dad was a Sir Humphrey and my sister in law is more of a Bernard Wooley.

Posted by: josh at May 9, 2012 12:54 AM

I see. So how would we end up with new politicals? How does it happen? The DEA threatens to leak some presidency-endangering info if he doesn't back off? Is that why he changed his tune on medical cannabis, then? I'm getting a Bourne Supremacy vibe here.

Posted by: Dr. Frank at May 9, 2012 02:14 AM

A better answer to your question is that the President trying to tell the DEA how to enforce the law is not much different from the Queen trying to exercise one of her vestigial prerogatives. Nobody knows what would happen and its been a long time since she even thought about interfering in government in any serious way. Political appointees know that if they give orders nobody has to listen t them, so they don't give orders. They haven't for 40 years.

Posted by: josh at May 10, 2012 11:26 AM
Post a comment

Remember personal info?