Is Obama in control?

Federal prosecutors have been conducting a war against California medical marijuana shops, in defiance of President Obama’s stated policy.

When he was campaigning for the presidency, Obama said, “What I’m not going to be doing is using Justice Department resources to try to circumvent state laws on this issue simply because I want folks to be investigating violent crimes and potential terrorism. We’ve got a lot of things for our law enforcement officers to deal with.”

After Obama became president, his attorney general quickly reinforced that stance. Eric Holder said this: “For those organizations that are doing so [allowing medical marijuana] sanctioned by state law and do it in a way that is consistent with state law, and given the limited resources that we have, that [prosecuting medical marijuana cases] will not be an emphasis for this administration.”

A few weeks later, deputy attorney general David Ogden put that position in writing in a memo to U.S. attorneys in states where voters had authorized state laws in conflict with federal law. Federal prosecutors, the Ogden memo said, should not “focus federal resources . . . on individuals whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws providing for the medical use of marijuana.”

All was well, with the president’s policy in place and implemented until this year. Then, in June, deputy attorney general James Cole issued a new memorandum that said the Ogden memo was still policy, but then he promptly undercut it with the claim that the earlier memo applied to caregivers for the sick and “not commercial operations cultivating, selling or distributing marijuana.” Cole did not explain where patients were supposed to obtain their meds without merchants nor did he explain what he has against free enterprise.

Suddenly, the Obama administration was playing Bill Clinton-like games with words, trying to make points with both drug warriors and drug reformers. Lower level officials have tried to portray themselves as not speaking for the White House, but that overlooks the fact that no one cares what Holder or Cole or Ogden think about health care. Only as agents of the president do their statements have any standing.

The U.S. attorneys in California put out the word that they, not the president, were behind the crackdown. Their claims make no sense. There is a long tradition in federal service that when a president’s appointees cannot support his policies, they are honor-bound to resign, and none of them have done so.

Not only are games being played with words, but both Obama and the U.S. attorneys are speaking through others to further fuzz up accountability. The president’s policy is being expressed by others, with the latest statement appearing like a sixth or seventh photocopy of the original. The U.S. attorneys did not speak directly, so they could be questioned, but through publicist Lauren Horwood. The public is left to wonder who’s in charge and whose policy prevails.

The president can’t be like the piano player in a cathouse who says he has no idea what is going on upstairs. He cannot take the high road as a defender of voter decisions while his underlings do the dirty work of undoing those decisions. If his policy has changed, he needs to say so clearly. If he can’t control his appointees, he needs to change them.