Polis, Suthers differ widely on whether legalizing marijuana would curtail cartel violence in Mexico

Vail Symposium highlights controversial views on Mexican culture from ex-DEA agent

By David O. Williams
Real AspenAugust 18, 2011
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.

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.
U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, left, and Colorado Attorney General John Suthers at Wednesday's Vail Symposium debate.
David O. Williams
“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.”

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.”

Editor's note: Former DEA agent Anthony Coulson did not agree that legalizing marijuana in the States would be a major blow to the cartels. As accurately and originally reported in this story, these are his exact words: “Dr. Nadelmann, Congressman Polis are correct that marijuana is the largest cash-generating operation of a cartel. 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.”

Additional Information:
The professionals who run a drug rehab center are ready to continue serving the needs of drug addicts who seek help, regardless of the results of efforts to legalize certain drugs like marijuana.

comments: 4 Comments on "Polis, Suthers differ widely on whether legalizing marijuana would curtail cartel violence in Mexico"

Tony Coulson – Aug. 23, 2011, at 4:30 p.m.

Mr. Williams statement that I agreed that legalization would be a blow against the cartels is a false state. The following paragraphs clearly stated my position. Also, you did not print my response to the young man who was offended by my remarks concerning the reason for Mexican violence. I quoted, former Sonoran Governor Eduardo Bours, who made that statement at a Foreign Policy Dinner in Phoenix, Arizona in 2008. I wish that you would print a correction to Mr. Williams' article. Tony Coulson

David O. – Aug. 24, 2011, at 6:40 a.m.

Mr. Coulson, your statement was this: “Dr. Nadelmann, Congressman Polis are correct that marijuana is the largest cash-generating operation of a cartel. 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.” Basically you're saying that the cartels would lose their ability to traffic in all drugs if marijuana is legalized in the United States. How would that not be a blow to the cartels? As for your statement about the reasons for Mexican violence, in your introductory remarks you indicated those were your sentiments, even following up with this statement: "Very provocative statement, but I stand by that." I appreciate your feedback but can't see how a correction is in order.

Tony Coulson – Aug. 24, 2011, at 12:49 p.m.

I never said that legalization of marijuana would be a blow to the cartels. That is an assumption you made and it not only misrepresents what I said, it is false and malicious. It is irresponsible, unethical and fraudulent for a reporter/journalist to put his own views in place of the person's statement you are reporting on. I will bring this to the attention of the Vail Symposium and Vail Daily as negative reflection upon you. I request that you print a retraction.

David O. – Aug. 24, 2011, at 2:42 p.m.

Again, how would the cartels losing revenue from the sale of "marijuana, heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine" not be a major blow? Regardless of your unwillingness to answer that question, either in the panel discussion or in this forum, I have posted a clarification in the form of an editor's note at the end of this story. I am not affiliated with either the Vail Symposium or the Vail Daily, but feel free to contact them if you're still not satisfied.

Comment Form Info  Comment Information
Real Aspen encourages you to post comments on our articles and blogs. Logged in email is required for monitoring purposes. Your email will not be published and will not be distributed to any third-party. Abusive, obscene, profane, threatening, libelous or defamatory comments are prohibited. By posting a comment, you agree to this policy and our terms of use. To report an abusive posting, please contact us.

To make a comment, please log in or create an account. This helps us prevent spam and other malicious attacks.

Please log in to comment


Create a user account to comment

Snow Report

  24hr snow mid dpth snow cond.
A-Basin n/a n/a
Aspen n/a n/a closed
BC n/a n/a closed
Breckenridge n/a n/a closed
Buttermilk n/a n/a closed
Copper n/a n/a closed
Crest. Butte n/a n/a closed
Eldora n/a n/a closed
Heavenly n/a n/a closed
Highlands n/a n/a
Howelsen n/a n/a closed
Keystone n/a n/a closed
Kirkwood n/a n/a closed
Loveland n/a n/a
Monarch n/a n/a closed
Northstar n/a n/a closed
Powderhorn n/a n/a closed
Purgatory n/a n/a closed
Silverton n/a n/a closed
Ski Cooper n/a n/a closed
Ski Granby n/a n/a closed
Snowmass n/a n/a closed
Steamboat n/a n/a closed
Sunlight n/a n/a closed
Telluride n/a n/a closed
Vail n/a n/a closed
WinterPark n/a n/a closed
Wolf Creek n/a n/a closed
More Weather Reports
Vail powder day snow snake
Airing it out at Crested Butte
Feb. 17, 2011 Surprise 14 inches of Fresh Powder