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An Interview with Colorado Sheriff Bill Masters

Philip Smith of the Drug Reform Coordination Network interviewed San Miguel County Sheriff Bill Masters about his new book on drug law reform and corruption in the Colorado police force.
 
 
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Sheriff Bill Masters has been the law in San Miguel County, most well-known for the town of Telluride, since 1980. First serving as a Republican, he switched to the Libertarian Party and is now the nation's only Libertarian sheriff. In recent years, Masters began to speak out publicly against the drug war, criticizing it as ineffective, unjust and inhumane. Now Masters has written a book, "Drug War Addiction: Notes from the Front Line of America's #1 Policy Disaster," which would make a great gift idea from drug reformers to their local Officer Friendly -- if he still be found -- or law enforcement decision-maker. (The book is available from Accurate Press, (800) 374-4049, or http://www.accuratepress.net and soon on Amazon.com).

Q: You've been sheriff for 22 years. What prompted you to write this book now?

Sheriff Bill Masters: I've been speaking my mind on this and other issues for a while now, even though I bought into the drug war when I became a cop. I thought it was my duty to enforce the drug laws. I had a policeman mentality, which is not bad, except when the laws you're enforcing become oppressive.

But I'm basically a Barry Goldwater-style conservative, and I think people should control their own bodies. After a while, I saw that we spend more and more money and arrest more and more people and have more and more drugs. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that this policy is not working. People need to look at this rationally and ask if this is effective. Do we have a healthier society because of drug prohibition? Drug dealers are certainly wealthy because of it. The reason drugs have expanded so much is there is a profit to be made in drug dealing. We need to eliminate that profit motive.

At any rate, some libertarian friends of mine looked at some of my speeches and told me I needed to write a book. I played around with writing some novels, but kept going back to the abundance of laws that try to control human behavior. So I tied to write about libertarian ideas and about the drug war. I passed it around to some literary critics in the area, and they said no one would ever publish it. But we got publishers bidding on it. We might even sell a few.

Q: What kind of reaction are you getting from the law enforcement community? What about the feds?

Masters: Definitely a mixed bag. A few sheriffs and others come out and say "Bill, you're absolutely right." But those are people who are very secure in their positions. They have strong community support because they are stand-up people. Others feel they have to be strong drug warriors, they say the community demands it. But I tell them that maybe they're misjudging their public. They don't want to hear that, but you have to lie to yourself if you think you can arrest yourself out of this problem. But I did that for years, I played the hard guy, I used it to get elected. As for the DEA, they haven't said anything. They've given me assistance every time I called them, they haven't given me a hard time, they've acted professionally around me.

Q: Colorado drug laws are still on the books. You presumably have to enforce those laws. What, given your views on drug prohibition, do you do differently?

Masters: First off, police officers have tremendous amounts of discretion, and we consciously choose our priorities. If there's a crime against a person, that's top priority and everything else stops. Same thing with traffic problems, we take them seriously, too. But we have to take the drug issue seriously, too; we don't want people thinking they can come here and be meth heads. About 10 percent of our arrests are for drugs.

As for raids, I've learned I was doing a disservice to my community. We've got to be more careful in the way we go out and apprehend drug users. Cops tend to go after drug people and execute drug warrants as if they are up against bank robbers, but more often than not, there aren't any guns. Yet here we were in full SWAT mode running around with no-knock warrants, endangering innocent parties in the home, children, roommates. When you look at the number of police killings, both the number of officers being killed and the number of people officers are killing have decreased, except when it comes to drug raids. Innocent people are being killed in drug raids because the informant is wrong, they hit the wrong house, the cops were too hyped-up and worried about their own protection. Our entire judicial district has taken a different stand: Now they are reluctant to give no-knock warrants because there were too many people killed, too many officers injured.

Another example is the roadblocks in neighboring counties aimed at catching people coming and leaving the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. I don't do the roadblocks, it's a tactic I don't like using under any circumstances, except maybe if a desperado was on the loose. I don't even use checkpoints for drunk driving. I think it's un-American. And those checkpoints found very few drugs and made a lot of people angry. But a few years ago, I would have been out doing the same thing.

Q: What are the most important negative impacts of drug prohibition on law enforcement?

Masters: Corruption. The corruption not just of law enforcement but the entire criminal justice system, and not just in the sense of being bought off, but in that it seems the bottom line is you treat people differently depending on who they are. If you're the president's wife and have a drug problem, you get a clinic named after you. If you're poor or black or Hispanic, you languish in jail. It goes all the way from who gets stopped, to who gets prosecuted, to who goes to prison and who goes to rehab. It hasn't really hit the kids in suburbia or the kids of the rich. That is a tarnish on all of our badges. Then there is plain old corruption. There are a lot of people addicted to drug money and some of them are in law enforcement. The whole damn department in the county next door is involved in a meth ring, and I see those officers as victims of the system as well. One of them was a great officer, very friendly, he was busted, he hung himself in jail last week awaiting transfer to the federal pen. One more victim of the whole American drug war culture. Yeah, he was a crooked cop, but he wouldn't have been if we didn't have this system.

Q: Do you make a distinction between drug use and abuse?

Masters: Absolutely. One of the problems with our existing laws is we make no distinction. The laws portray people who possess any drugs as criminals. But with legal drugs, such as alcohol, we set limits; we have a system with alcohol that maintains individual responsibility. That seems more sensible than making anyone who uses drugs or possesses drugs a criminal.

Q: Do you not fear an explosion of drug use if drugs were more easily available?

Masters: I always ask people who say that "Are you going to start taking them?" People who want drugs in America can go out and get them right now. This existing situation is the worst possible, the whole thing is driven underground and it's completely out of any sort of government or social control. We have to bring it above ground, away from the criminal element, and have an organized system to distribute it to adults that we will hold responsible for actions. That's what we do with alcohol and you don't see guys in trench coats down at the schoolyard trying to sell alcohol. I think we would have some people who have no self-control and that would be a problem, but we have that problem today.

Q: What would an ideal drug policy consist of? Opponents of reform always conjure up images of crack in vending machines.

Masters: No, that's what we have now. I want to see a regulated system of distribution done through the medical and pharmacological community for those people -- serious heroin or meth users -- who need the stuff, and that system needs to offer addicts some sort of rehabilitation. We've done this before; it worked well in the 1920s, before the federal government prevented doctors from prescribing morphine to addicts. Beyond that, marijuana should just be legalized, except you shouldn't be blowing dope in your car, or consume it in public. Same as alcohol. We don't allow people to walk around our town drinking liquor. I don't want my kids exposed to this stuff. That's why you have bars or your own home. I would concentrate law enforcement resources on things like driving under the influence, you have to keep that aspect of it. You can't be harming others.

Philip Smith edits DRCNet's Week Online.