The Maverick

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

"A quarter of the FBI case filings in the year before 9/11 were drug cases," he says. "Who was looking after the terrorists? Nobody. We have 10,000 DEA agents. Is it more important to prevent the next terrorist attack or to bust Cheech for having a bong? In the year before 9/11, we arrested almost 750,000 people for possession of marijuana -- and one foreign terrorist."

He shakes his head in disgust. "You'd think real conservatives would be looking at what works, what's the best result you can get for the money," he says.

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.

A day after the sheriff's reconnaissance mission on the suspected meth lab, the case goes down. Two deputies stop by the house in the woods to inquire about the abandoned snowmobiles down the road. They see a marijuana plant on the porch -- a gorgeous, kind-bud invitation to obtain a search warrant.

Inside the house, investigators find a grow operation encompassing a couple dozen pot plants. The meth lab is in the basement. The haz-mat team uses 200 pounds of cat litter just for the initial mop-up of the toxic spills; dismantling the whole lab takes two days.

The rest of the house isn't in much better shape. The septic system isn't working, possibly because of lab chemicals being dumped there. "People were crapping in buckets," Masters says. "It was one of the filthiest places I've been in."

Three suspects are arrested: a sixty-year-old grandmother, her 27-year old son and his 22-year-old girlfriend. Grandma is a former high school chemistry teacher from California. They're booked on charges of suspected manufacture of methamphetamine and marijuana cultivation.

This was Masters's first lab bust, and he brought in a few trusted colleagues -- a Colorado Bureau of Investigation agent, members of a regional drug task force -- to help out. He used to share information about drug investigations more freely with other agencies, but that was before the Great Ouray Meth Scandal of '99; the debacle opened his eyes to the extent of police corruption engendered by the drug trade, even in isolated places like southwestern Colorado.

Six years ago, Masters had a tip about a load of meth on its way to Ouray, and he alerted the sheriff's office in Ouray County. The smugglers mysteriously changed their route. Months later, a grand jury indicted nineteen people in connection with meth distribution in the county, including Ouray's undersheriff, his wife and brother-in-law, the sheriff's two daughters and another deputy.

Sheriff Jerry Wakefield pleaded guilty to eleven counts of embezzlement and theft, admitting that he'd kept illegal guns and other property seized in investigations over two decades, and received probation. His undersheriff got nineteen years. The other implicated deputy, facing eighteen years in prison, hanged himself in his cell.

Masters testified against the ring in court. To him, the fallen officers are yet one more example of the collateral damage wreaked by the drug war. The havoc extends from crooked cops to cops killed in drug raids to innocent bystanders, such as Ismael Mena, the Mexican national killed by Denver SWAT officers in a no-knock raid at the wrong address; Roni Bowers, a Baptist missionary who was killed, along with her baby, when her plane was shot down over Peru by a task force hunting drug smugglers; and Esequiel Hernandez, a young goatherder mistakenly killed by Marines on an interdiction mission in south Texas. (The release date of Masters's latest book, May 20, is the anniversary of Hernandez's death.)

The human toll of the drug war isn't a series of random misfortunes that can be corrected through better training or more vigilant police work, Masters insists. It's part of the package, built into the deal, in much the same way Al Capone was an inevitable spawn of the Volstead Act. "When you look at the old records on Prohibition, the number of cops who were dirty is so similar to what we have now," the sheriff says.

The only path out of the mess, he contends, is to take the profits out of the illegal drug trade through decriminalization and, ultimately, legalization. Treat drug use as a health issue, not a criminal offense, borrowing from the lessons learned through treatment and education programs launched in Europe, Canada and even America's own distant past.

"Right now, illegal drugs are in a state of anarchy, and criminals love anarchy," he says. "They make a tremendous amount of money out of it. The last thing they want is to see people in rehab."

It's a familiar argument, but not one you usually hear from a man with a badge. That's part of what's refreshing about Masters's message, as well as that of most of the other contributors to his new book: The writers' condemnation of drug-prohibition efforts contains no hint of approval of drug use.

"The central mistake is to treat all moral issues as if they should be political issues," says Ari Armstrong, a Libertarian activist who served as assistant editor of The New Prohibition and also contributed an essay to the volume. "One great value of Bill's work and of the new book is that it continues to break down mistaken conceptions of politics and morality."

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