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Dissenter from the drugs war profiled


Compiled by Allen Best

TELLURIDE, Colo. — Bill Masters showed up at Telluride in 1973, working as a lift operator by winter and then by summer on the trail crew. The son of a university administrator in California, he already had a degree in police science and was soon the town marshal in Telluride.

Conservative by nature, a Goldwater admirer in his youth, Masters was at the time a hard-nosed cop eager to enforce all the drug laws on the book. In Telluride he had plenty of opportunities. But, in the years since, experience has changed Masters’ outlook. In 1998, as sheriff for San Miguel County, he publicly broke ranks with Colorado Republicans and the U.S. government’s War on Drugs.

Denver-based Westword tells about the evolution of Masters’ thinking in a story written by Alan Prendergast titled "The Maverick."

The war, explained Masters in his first book, "Drug War Addiction: Notes from the Front Lines of America’s #1 Policy Disaster," is hypocritical and it perpetuates a bureaucracy that is ever eager to expand itself. A new book called The New Prohibition, which he edited and for which he wrote the lead essay, takes the argument several steps further, with contributions from a congressman, a retired federal court judge, the head of a conservative think tank, and several retired police officials.

Pivotal in changing the thinking of Masters were two murder cases. In the first, Eva Shoen, the daughter of the founder of the U-Haul empire, was murdered in her home near Telluride. The killer was a serial rapist from New Mexico out on parole after only serving nine years. What kind of country frees rapists, he wondered, because its prisons are overloaded with drug offenders?

In the second case, an 18-year-old woman from nearby Montrose disappeared. While attending a conference at the FBI headquarters in suburban Washington D.C. devoted to serial killers, says Masters, he was startled to learn that of the throngs of young FBI agents he saw, most were devoted to drug cases and only a few to serial killers.

Now, Masters sees drug warriors trying to justify their budgets in the wake the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks with the argument that their war is also the war against terror. "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," Masters told Westword.