The Maverick

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

Masters doesn't believe that legalizing drugs would make his citizens less safe. People who get caught driving drunk or stoned in his county don't get any lenient treatment from him, and that would still be the case. But, he says, putting the brakes on draconian possession laws would free up money for treatment programs. He's already taken a modest step in that direction himself, diverting $10,000 in seized money for a loan fund available to addicts who want to seek treatment.

So far, no one has taken him up on the offer; Masters thinks he hasn't publicized the program enough. But the offer may have too many catches for the average junkie. For one thing, defendants already facing court-ordered treatment programs aren't eligible for the loans. For another, the money is expected to be paid back, as part of what Masters describes as the recovering addict's "commitment to assume personal responsibility for his behavior."

The term "personal responsibility" comes up frequently in Masters's conversation and his writing. More than a Libertarian mantra, it's at the core of his ethos. It's why he drives the oldest heap in the parking lot, silencing any deputies who want to bitch to him about their patrol vehicles. It's why he takes an entire morning to go check out a suspected meth house himself, to make sure there's no stretching of the warrant, no wrong address, no mistakes of any kind when the case goes down. And it's also why he feels compelled to break ranks in order to deliver an unpopular message about drugs and police work.

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.

Masters has kept spreading the word, even though he would rather talk about his wonderful wife, his "really good" kids ("We've been lucky with them so far; there's a lot of pressure on them"), living in a town where you don't have to lock your doors all the time, and going to work in a uniform that consists of jeans and a black T-shirt. Or the executive- and celebrity-protection service he's launched in his spare time, with an eye toward the day he retires. His $65,000-a-year sheriff's salary makes him one of the highest-paid public officials in San Miguel County, but it's still well below what a fellow with college-aged children needs to earn to survive in Telluride.

A few weeks ago, in the course of a cocaine investigation conducted by the Telluride town marshal and the CBI, officers came across a copy of Drug War Addiction in the suspect's home. Pointedly, they left their search warrant tucked into the sheriff's book.

Masters took the jab in stride. He's not ready to retire yet, he says. He knows just how traumatic that decision could be -- not just for him, but for his town.

"There is nothing more dangerous," he says, "than a new sheriff."

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