The Maverick

Telluride lawman Bill Masters is no dope. So what turned him against the war on drugs?

Bill Masters is looking for a meth lab.

In the big city, the search would take him down mean streets, to a ratty duplex or a motel bathroom or some tweaker's garage. But the resort town of Telluride has no mean streets, and the rest of San Miguel County, where Masters has been sheriff for the past 25 years, has almost no streets at all.

But that doesn't mean that this sinfully scenic county is a drug-free zone. Dope is everywhere, if you want to go hunting for it. On this particular morning in early May, Masters has solid intelligence about a suspected methamphetamine operation tucked deep in the woods, and he wants to eyeball the place himself before sending any of his deputies into harm's way. So he slips behind the wheel of a 1995 white Bronco -- the oldest vehicle in his agency's fleet -- and heads for the high country.

Christopher Smith
Ride the high country: San Miguel County sheriff Bill 
Masters just says no to the war on drugs.
Brett Schreckengost
Ride the high country: San Miguel County sheriff Bill Masters just says no to the war on drugs.

"We're going to have to do something about it," he says, negotiating a steep dirt road north of Telluride. "We're going to have to figure out how to get in there and bust those people."

It's off-season in southwestern Colorado -- too late for skiing, too early for the summer crowd. Spring comes late to the San Juans, then seems to arrive all at once. The snow retreats from the green slopes, the wildflowers emerge, and the white-capped peaks loom stark and silent in the brilliant sunlight.

Masters's route takes him through mountain meadows and across the top of a mesa, past old mining shacks and million-dollar homes. He stops occasionally to check out vehicles parked by the side of the road, including a couple of abandoned snowmobiles. Finally, he circles around a modest two-story house surrounded by aspens at the end of a private road. The property is littered with debris -- a discarded camper top, tools, paint cans, a junker with its hood up.

"That's it," he says. "I wouldn't call it a typical meth house, but what's typical these days?"

A shade of weariness creeps into his voice as he heads back to Telluride. The sheriff has every intention of seeing this case go down -- meth is meth, after all, and he's sworn to uphold the law. "If we come across a situation that we think is dangerous to the community, we're going to take action," he says. But doing your job isn't the same as believing in the cause, and when it comes to the drug war, Bill Masters is no longer a true believer.

His disillusionment has been shaped by his experiences in the trenches of that war as it's been played out in the Rocky Mountain fantasy camp known as Telluride.

Masters and Telluride grew up together. He arrived in the rough-and-tumble mining town when the ski area was just starting, and local bars were often the battleground between hard-drinking old-timers and hard-drinking, pot-smoking newcomers. Green and inflexible, Masters became known as a hardass, eager to rid his community of cannabis, cocaine and any other controlled substance the ski crowd might bring in.

He ran wiretaps and undercover buys, slapped the cuffs on local drug lords and respected town officials, worked with strike forces with fancy names, even copped an award from the DEA -- yet the drugs kept coming. In the 1980s, the increasingly affluent resort town's penchant for recreational toot was so well-known that it received a nod in Glenn Frey's hit "Smuggler's Blues":

They move it through Miami
Sell it in L.A.
They hide it up in Telluride
I mean it's here to stay.

For years, Masters fought the coke trade with zeal. But appalled as he was by the toll of drug abuse, he began to see drug enforcement -- with its rising corruption and violence, its drain on public resources, its erosion of civil liberties and hefty contribution to the prison population -- as a much greater social problem. In 1998, he broke with the state's Republican leadership over drug policy, becoming the nation's only Libertarian sheriff. Three years later he published his first book, Drug War Addiction: Notes From the Front Lines of America's #1 Policy Disaster, blasting the hypocrisy of interdiction efforts and calling for the warriors' ever-soaring budgets to be diverted to drug prevention and treatment programs.

A second book, The New Prohibition, released this week, takes the case against the war several steps further. Edited by Masters, who also contributed an introductory essay, the book features contributions from a wide range of observers, including Texas congressman Ron Paul, Denver federal judge John L. Kane, Independence Institute guru Dave Kopel and three retired police officials -- some provocative and, in many cases, unexpected dissenters joining the chorus of voices critical of the drug war.

"The only reason why drugs and crime have expanded to reach every Mayberry village in the country is our blind obedience to misguided laws and police tactics that just do not work," Masters writes in his essay introducing the collection. "It is time to admit our own folly and stop our addiction to the drug war."

He may be only a Mayberry-grade sheriff, but Masters's outspokenness on the subject has attracted national attention and lecture invitations that extend well beyond the usual Libertarian crowd -- as well as withering scorn from Colorado's U.S. Attorney, John Suthers, and other government officials. But it's the reception his ideas have received from fellow cops that matters most to Masters.

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