Polis, Suthers spar on impacts of marijuana legalization in Colorado, Mexico

Left to right: U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, Colorado Attorney General John Suthers, Drug Policy Alliance director Ethan Nadelmann, and former DEA agent Anthony Coulson (Williams photo).

Congressman Jared Polis and drug-policy reform advocate Ethan Nadelmann argued Wednesday night in Vail that one of the most compelling reasons to legalize marijuana in the United States is to eliminate a major funding source for deadly Mexican drug cartels. Both Colorado Attorney General John Suthers and recently retired DEA agent Anthony Coulson sharply disagreed.

Polis, Suthers (Williams photo).
All four spoke as part of a Vail Symposium panel discussion. Colorado, which already allows use of medical marijuana, will likely vote on full legalization in 2012, and Polis is a co-sponsor of a bill to end federal regulation of marijuana and allow states to decide.

“There’s no federal nexus for action. This is not a federal issue. In fact, there’s almost a reverse federal nexus. We are contributing to international difficulties, particularly on our southern border, where about 50 percent of the funds for the criminal cartels come from marijuana smuggling operations,” said Polis, a Boulder Democrat whose district includes Vail and surrounding Eagle County.

Suthers, a Republican who has openly expressed his contempt for Colorado’s current medical marijuana industry, said Mexican politicians and law enforcement officials he’s talked to don’t see legalization of marijuana in the United States as the key to ending drug-gang bloodshed in Mexico.

“They think that [violence is] so ingrained at this point, [and the cartels are] very flexible,” Suthers said. “When the drug market dries up, they kidnap people. Until we get some meaningful change in the Mexican criminal justice system – it’s kind of a non-player down there – [the cartels are] in charge of the country and they’ll do whatever they need to do to make money regardless of what happens in the U.S.”

Nadelmann, founder and executive director of the non-profit Drug Policy Alliance, countered that argument: “The number one thing you need to go into other businesses is capital. The number one source of capital for the Mexican gangs is the illegal drug business. Legalizing marijuana removes a major source of capital for them and will undermine their capacity to expand into other areas.”

Coulson, who formerly directed the federal government’s drug enforcement strategy in southern Arizona and now serves as a drug-policy consultant and director of ADAPTE International, agreed that legalizing marijuana in the States would be a major blow to the cartels.

“Dr. Nadelmann, Congressman Polis are correct that marijuana is the largest cash-generating operation of a cartel,” Coulson said. “If there was no marijuana, heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine would collapse on itself – just logistically not enough money for a cartel to traffic in those drugs. Now you might say that that supports [their argument] on legalizing marijuana … After 28 years that’s not a conclusion that I would come to.”

Instead, Coulson favors keeping marijuana illegal, dramatically increasing federal spending on treatment and prevention and sanctioning the Mexican government and power structure.

“What controls Mexico? Not the Mexican government. The oligarchy. The few rich 200 families in Mexico and the cartels control Mexico. The only impact that we’ll have is sanctioning the government of Mexico for not cooperating with us and sanctioning the oligarchy,” Coulson said.

The former DEA agent went on to say Mexico’s culture of violence will persist even without a major U.S. drug market.

“I would suggest that the violence in Mexico is not a product of our consumption use, although it’s a contributing factor,” Coulson said. “The reason for violence in Mexico is because it is something that they have inherited from their colonial masters, the Spanish and the French, a long time ago.”

During a later question and answer period an audience member who identified himself as being of Mexican descent said Coulson’s comments deeply offended him. He countered that the U.S. drug market has provided a steady flow of cash and guns back across the border that has fueled the rise of the cartels and allowed them to take over human trafficking operations.

Vail has long catered to wealthy Latin American visitors and second homeowners, especially from Mexico, and many of its restaurants and lodges rely on immigrant laborers. Suthers seemed keenly aware of his audience.

“Almost without exception, the people on these panels advocating the legalization of drugs have either been academics, paid affiliates of public policy institutes, editorialists or law enforcement officers or politicians in ski resorts and areas of great affluence,” Suthers said.

Polis, a millionaire entrepreneur whose family owns property in Vail, disputed that notion. While he says he’s never smoked marijuana himself and very rarely even drinks alcohol, Polis said he’s dealt with addiction in his own family and saw a high school friend die of a heroin overdose.

But pot is not heroin, he said, and the ease with which is can be obtained illegally makes it all the more imperative to regulate marijuana for strength and purity and to keep it away from those under the age of 21. Plus, legalization will neuter the cartels and boost the U.S. economy.

“If you had legal, regulated marijuana production in this country, not only is it going to create jobs here, it deals a blow to the cartels,” Polis said. “Will they still exist? Yeah, they still work in heroin and cocaine and whatever else they’re doing. But half of their money, half of the crime will disappear overnight on our southern border and be much more containable by the police resources which we will also be able to buffer by the increased focus on violent crime and the increased resources that come in from regulating and taxing marijuana.”

Nadelmann, Coulson (Williams photo).
Suthers admitted that if the choice is Colorado’s current medical marijuana industry or full legalization for those over 21, the likely 2012 ballot question may be the lesser of two evils.

“I personally would prefer legalization of marijuana to the medical marijuana regimen we currently have in Colorado,” Suthers said. “I believe the retail dispensary model in Colorado, whereby marijuana is grown in large grow operations and sold in retail dispensaries to people who allegedly have a debilitating medical condition has become a complete joke. It’s nothing more than state-sanctioned fraud on the part of thousands of patients and a few dozen doctors.”

Nadelmann warned that even if Colorado becomes the first state to fully legalize recreational marijuana use, it will not be an easy process.

“It’s not a panacea,” he said. “And I can tell you that if Colorado votes to legalize in 2012 – and please do and I hope the same is true for folks in Washington state, which may also have an initiative – it’s not going to be simple and easy. There’s no flip the switch and we move into an orderly regulated world. The attorney general is going to be called upon to enact that law and implement that law in good faith and I hope he will if it wins.”

Nadelmann added, however, that Colorado has a chance to show the rest of the nation what sensible drug policy looks like.

“You guys can lead,” he said. “You can actually provide the future, and it’s a future in which we’ll have drug policies grounded not in ignorance, fear, prejudice and profit but in science, compassion, health and human rights.”