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.
Reefer's digest: Bill Masters became a national figure 
with his 2001 book, Drug War Addiction.
Reefer's digest: Bill Masters became a national figure with his 2001 book, Drug War Addiction.

"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.

"I talk to police officers all over the nation," he notes. "Most of them say, 'I can't say this publicly, but you're right.'"

One lawman who doesn't hesitate to second Masters is Robert Braudis, Pitkin County's sheriff for the past eighteen years. Policing Aspen and its environs, Braudis has shunned undercover drug operations and come to the conclusion that the war on drugs "was lost the first day it started." Their politics are actually quite different -- Braudis is a liberal from south Boston, while Masters aligns himself with the conservative wing of libertarianism -- but Braudis admires his colleague's honesty and fortitude.

"Bill's a veteran of the war on drugs, and I'm a conscientious objector," Braudis says. "He's more of a cowboy than I am, maybe because San Miguel is a little more Wild West than Pitkin is now. He's definitely got the balls of a burglar to go public with this."

Masters says he's only doing what every police official should do: let the public know his limitations. To illustrate this, he recounts a story from early in his career, when he was Telluride's town marshal and the city fathers came up with a complicated plan for plowing the streets that required motorists to move their cars to various locations depending on the day of the month. "I told the town board, 'We can make this happen,'" he recalls. "But in those days, most people in Telluride didn't know what month it was, much less what day. We started giving out 400 parking tickets a month, in a town of maybe 400 cars. We were towing dozens of cars a day.

"People didn't take it out on the people who passed the law; they took it out on the enforcement people. We had our cars vandalized. People were up in arms over this stupid parking regulation. Eventually they changed the law. I should have realized that a good peace officer would have gone to the town board and said, 'This isn't going to work.' We're the ones out on the street. We can tell you what can work and can't work. Too often we say, 'We can do it; just give us more money and manpower and jails.' Just to increase our own bureaucracy, we gladly sign on."


Awards, certificates and other memorabilia attesting to the fact that Bill Masters is a good peace officer adorn the walls and desk of his office, along with pictures of his wife, Jill, a paramedic, and their combined family of four children (two boys now in their teens, two girls in their twenties). Two other items stand out.

One is a snapshot of several kilos of cocaine piled in a chair, a souvenir from a sprawling conspiracy case Masters investigated decades ago. The picture was taken in Colombia; the sheriff came across it while serving a search warrant in Telluride, but only a fraction of the dope was ever seized.

The second is a battered copy of the state statutes from 1908, found in a forgotten crevice when workers were remodeling Telluride's old jail. The book occupies a lonely space on a shelf above thirteen volumes of the current Colorado Revised Statutes. The juxtaposition makes for a useful visual aid whenever Masters launches into one of his favorite topics, the relentless expansion of government over the past century. God gave Moses ten laws, he notes; the state legislature has given the citizens of Colorado more than 30,000.

"When you get to that number, lawlessness becomes commonplace," he says. "We have to triage all this. Which ones do we pick that we're really serious about?"

Asking hard questions about law enforcement was something Masters was avoiding when he moved to Telluride in 1974. He was 23 years old but looked sixteen. A California native and son of a university vice president, he'd served in the Coast Guard and had a degree in police science from Northern Arizona University. He'd toyed with the idea of joining the Los Angeles Police Department but didn't think he was ready yet.

"I came up here to ski for a year," he says. "That was my plan. I keep telling people I've never made enough money to leave."

Masters found a job as a lift operator with the new ski resort. In the summer he cleared trails with a chainsaw. One day he was hitchhiking home, covered in grease and dirt, when Jim Hall, the town marshal, offered him a ride. Masters happened to mention his interest in police work, and Hall promptly offered him a job as a deputy. At the time, the marshal was a one-man department, and he was desperate for relief. The chief requirement wasn't training -- that would come later, Hall explained -- but that Masters bring his own gun when he reported to work.

The town board's only reservation about the new deputy was his gung-ho attitude on the drug laws. As a lift operator, Masters had followed company policy to the letter, shutting down the lift if someone tried to get on while smoking a joint. His confrontational attitude rubbed some people the wrong way.

Hall wasn't much older than Masters. He was a conservative Mormon, but he'd also worked as a police officer in a college town and had experience dealing with boisterous young people. Like Andy counseling Barney, Hall urged his deputy to polish his "people skills," but Masters had trouble adjusting to the situation.

"I didn't know how to deal with people," he says now. "Why they didn't run me out of town the first year, I don't know. I didn't explain myself or conduct myself properly. Jim tried to show me, but in a two-person department, it was really difficult.

"I was astounded at the number of times he would turn his back on drug usage. There was a fair amount of pot smoking, nothing really serious. But when I put on the badge, I said, 'There's no more of this going to be done around me.' I thought if people were threatened with arrest enough, they would stop using drugs. But they didn't feel they were doing anything wrong."

It was a tumultuous time in Telluride. The miners were cashing in on rising real-estate values and pulling up stakes. Entrepreneurs were flooding into town, eager to transform the funky Victorian enclave at the end of a box canyon into the next Aspen. Generally, drugs weren't frowned on -- but drug busts, and the accompanying bad publicity, certainly were. Somehow Masters weathered his first year and went off to the state police academy to learn how to be a real cop. While he was gone, Hall resigned in order to take a better-paying position in Grand Junction. Masters found himself appointed town marshal.

"I was grateful the town put their faith in me," he says. "But looking back on it, I think some of the townspeople thought, 'This guy's perfect for the job because he doesn't know what he's doing. If he was a real professional cop, God knows what would happen.'"

Over time, Masters learned to moderate his stance toward casual marijuana use. Cocaine was another matter. After three years, he left the marshal's job to become the undersheriff for San Miguel County. When Sheriff Fred Ellerd moved into a county commissioner's seat in 1979, the 27-year-old Masters was appointed to replace him. He was soon embroiled in one of the largest cocaine conspiracy cases the county has ever seen.

The case concerned a group of locals who were altering trucks, driving to Colombia or Bolivia, picking up their loads, then shipping the trucks back to the States by freighter. A state drug task force spent half a million dollars on wiretaps of suspected dealers. But the targets knew enough about court rulings to realize that the surveillance had to be broken off if the first three minutes of conversation failed to mention drugs; the mountain of tapes that resulted from the eavesdropping contained a lot of chitchat about sexual exploits and precious little about cocaine.

After months of dogged investigation, though, Masters and the state crime-busters had enough evidence to move on the ring. They found a gram of coke at one house, several ounces at another -- and the snapshot of the elusive kilos that now graces Masters's office. The team ended up busting Masters's successor as town marshal, two town boardmembers, several other prominent citizens and the reputed "kingpin" of the operation -- the head of the local cable-TV company.

"Telluride had a cocaine problem, no question about it," Masters says. "This needed to be done. But my people got stuck with more of the burden of that case than anybody else. The drug task-force folks all left and were drinking beer in Denver, and we were left holding the bag. People were burning me in effigy. Some places in town were refusing to serve us. I felt alienated from the community. I really thought I was going to lose the next election."

The kingpin got eight years. Six months later, after a reconsideration of his sentence, he was free to return to town.

The fiasco didn't deter Masters. But he was beginning to question the methods of the drug warriors. Months of effort -- for what? All the arrests seemed to do was make the business more attractive to new players. "If you bust a burglary ring, there's relief on the street," he notes, "but if you bust a drug dealer, somebody immediately takes their place."

The Reagan era was awash in federal grants for police agencies, provided the money was earmarked for drug enforcement. Masters learned to play the game. He teamed up with "elite" drug squads that never lacked for work because there were always plenty of people to arrest. He went before the county commissioners and made impassioned pleas for more money to fight the scourge of cocaine in the county, and his budget swelled.

He shelled out cash to informants, turning a blind eye to their criminal enterprises in exchange for busting their rivals and suppliers. He put undercover officers on the street with no particular target in mind, simply to make random arrests of any slob looking to score. He busted a deputy district attorney, one of his own deputies, a local newspaper editor, construction workers, housewives, high school kids -- all the time recognizing that they weren't master criminals, just addicts and fuckups.

His frustration mounted, but what could he do? They were writing songs about his town and its cokeheads. He had to do something.

"'They hide it up in Telluride' -- they sure were," he remembers. "It got to the point where I was convinced that anybody who had any money was a drug dealer. That's how warped it got."

His hardnosed approach, so unpopular just a few years before, was now, perversely, in vogue. Federal agents slapped him on the back and handed him good-conduct medals. He routinely won re-election -- less, perhaps, for his drug crusades than for his reputation as a level-headed fellow who'd never fired a shot in anger. (He'd once wrestled a shotgun from a suicidal man dressed in camouflage and felt the blast brush through his hair, a maneuver that he now says was one of the foolhardiest of his career.) He was fighting the good fight, just saying no. But he couldn't escape his uneasiness about the whole business.

Even his own public-relations programs bothered him. He'd hired a DARE officer to go into the schools and talk about drugs, hoping to get the message out that the San Miguel County Sheriff's Office was truly concerned about young people going astray.

"This one mother came up to thank me because the program was teaching the kids about drugs," he recalls. "As she was talking, it dawned on me that I'd taken on her role as a parent. Now it was my responsibility to teach her children about drugs.

"I started looking at it differently. Just what is my role in all this? Now when parents want to know why we're not doing more about drugs, I tell them, 'Listen, if you rely on me to deal with this, you're going to be disappointed. Law enforcement has failed miserably at controlling this, and we're going to continue to fail.'"


According to research cited in The New Prohibition, state and federal authorities spend more than $9 billion a year to imprison close to half a million drug offenders. More people are sent to prison for drug offenses than for violent crimes, a trend that's been consistent since 1989. The overall cost to the justice system of arresting, convicting, punishing and supervising drug offenders stands at about $70 billion a year.

Yet most street drugs, including heroin and cocaine, are far more available now, in purer form and at a cheaper price, than they were twenty years ago. And a new plague of hard-to-track product, from high-tech designer drugs to home-cooked meth, has defied conventional drug-busting efforts to contain it.

The emerging big picture wasn't easy to grasp from his vantage point in Telluride, Masters says. As the drug war dragged into the '90s, he was becoming increasingly cynical about the value of his efforts, but it wasn't as if he had a sudden blinding moment of revelation. It took two high-profile homicide cases, the only murders he's ever had to investigate, to decisively change his focus and his priorities.

On August 6, 1990, the body of 44-year-old Eva Berg Shoen was found by her two young children in their home in the Ski Ranches, an affluent development on a hillside above Telluride. She'd been dead for hours, shot in the back by a .25-caliber pistol.

Sam Shoen, Eva's husband, was the oldest son of L.S. Shoen, the founder of the U-Haul empire -- and a key litigant in a nasty court battle over control of the company that had divided the founder's twelve children into warring factions. Speculation began immediately that the murder had something to do with the high-stakes family feud, and Masters found himself under pressure from all sides to investigate various Shoens as prime suspects in the case.

Besieged by reporters, private investigators hired by U-Haul and other self-styled crime "experts," Masters decided to use the massive publicity to try to shake loose some leads. Sam Shoen offered a $250,000 reward for information leading to his wife's killer, and Masters pushed the offer in press interviews and on the television program Unsolved Mysteries, which twice aired a segment on the case. After almost three years of absurd tips and conspiracy theories, the blitz finally produced a solid suspect: the brother-in-law of Frank Marquis, a paroled rapist living in New Mexico, claimed that Marquis had bragged to him about the slaying.

Marquis had no connection to the Shoen family feud, but a check of old time sheets at a body shop where he once worked led Masters to Jeff Beale, who'd driven with Marquis to Telluride the weekend Eva Shoen was murdered. After some hedging, Beale told the sheriff that Marquis had tossed clothing out the car window on the road back to Santa Fe. A painstaking search of a lonely stretch of highway collected mounds of trash -- including a weathered piece of cloth that, under lab analysis, yielded a single blond hair belonging to Eva Shoen.

"We arrest Marquis and bring him back here to stand trial," Masters recalls. "He refuses to make a statement until he gets a plea bargain for 24 years, and then he gives us this bullshit story that he broke into the house to steal things and walked up the stairs to a lit bedroom -- something a burglar would never do -- where he was surprised to find this woman. I'm convinced he was there to commit a sexual assault."

Every year, Masters and Sam Shoen attend Marquis's parole hearing, determined to see that he serves every day of his sentence until his mandatory release date. For Masters, one of the most outrageous aspects of the case is that Marquis was out on parole at the time of Eva's murder. He'd been charged with ten counts of sexual assault in New Mexico but pleaded to one count and served only nine years. What kind of country lets rapists go free, he wondered, because its prisons are overloaded with drug offenders?

The true turning point for Masters came in the course of a subsequent, even more emotional murder investigation. Buffy Rice Donohue, an eighteen-year-old girl fighting a cocaine problem, had disappeared from Montrose in 1993; her skeletal remains were found in San Miguel County eighteen months later. Through physical evidence and witness interviews, Masters built what he calls a "great case" against David Middleton, an ex-cop from Miami with a history of sexual violence. But by that point, Middleton was on his way to death row in Nevada for the brutal rape and murders of two other women, and the Montrose district attorney refused to take the case.

"It would have been a lot of work, and the county couldn't afford it," Masters says. "I gave the district attorney's office $50,000 in drug-seizure money, no strings attached, just because I wanted him to think about prosecuting this case. He spent it on something else."

In 1997, Masters attended a summit at the FBI training academy in Quantico, Virginia, that allowed investigators from different jurisdictions to compare notes on Middleton's cross-country rampage of rape and murder. The sheriff was disappointed to discover that the bureau's famed team of serial-killer trackers and profilers, celebrated in books and movies, consisted of a few agents and clerks, loaded down with more files than they could possibly manage. He took some comfort in seeing all the young faces around the building, bright-eyed agents in training who, Masters hoped, might someday catch violent men like Middleton before their assaults turned deadly. Then it was explained to him who all those young people really were.

"They weren't FBI agents at all," Masters says darkly. "They were DEA agents, more fodder for the drug war. We'd spent days going over all these pictures of murdered girls, all these unsolved cases. And I'm thinking, 'What do people really worry about? The people smoking pot in their basements, or some weirdo kidnapping your daughter?' Statistically, of course, that's not much of a possibility, but that's still more of a concern of mine than all the potheads put together."

A few months later, Masters parted company with Colorado's Republican leadership over what he regarded as similarly skewed priorities: the GOP's opposition to legislation that would allow needle exchanges for drug addicts, to discourage the spread of AIDS and other blood-borne diseases. "There was a message sent out that any Republican who supports this bill will face a Republican challenger in the primary. That was the final straw for me," he says. "I was too conservative for the Republicans and too liberal for the Democrats."

An admirer of Barry Goldwater in his youth, Masters had joined the Libertarian Party when he first arrived in Colorado in the early 1970s, only to cast that affiliation aside when he became a public official. Now he went back to the Libertarians. He crushed a Republican challenger in his 1998 race for re-election, commanding more than 80 percent of the vote. Most of his supporters don't give a damn about his party affiliation; they vote for him because they know him.

"He's a good sheriff, no question about that," says Vern Ebert, the Republican county commissioner. "He may think that the mandatory sentence for some offenses is too much, but he and his deputies go out and enforce the law. I'd be the first to kick his butt out if he didn't."

"I've always been very impressed with Bill," says Art Goodtimes, the Green Party county commissioner. "He doesn't believe in the drug war, but if there's a complaint, he follows it up, no matter who it is."

"He doesn't put himself in other people's business," says Rob Schultheis, a Telluride-based journalist and author who's known Masters for twenty years. "At the same time, he's a super cop. The town has changed a lot, but his approach has always been pretty much the same. I have a low tolerance for other people's flaws, but I think the world of him."

In 2002, Masters ran unopposed. By that point, the six-term sheriff had published his first volley at federal drug policy, Drug War Addiction. He'd also watched, bemused, as the drug warriors scrambled to protect their budgets in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Building on evidence that various extremist groups finance their activities through narcotics trafficking, DEA officials put forth the proposition that the war on terror and the war on drugs were essentially intertwined; the Office of National Drug Policy even produced a series of radio and TV spots stating that drug users were supporting terrorism.

But Masters insists that the drug war is primarily focused on locking up American citizens -- and, in the process, squandering resources and manpower that could be better devoted to homeland-security interests.

"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.


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."

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.

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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