By John L. Kane
Special to the Denver Post
Sunday, February 24, 2002, pg 3EE
Years ago, the sheriff of a Colorado mountain county was approached by an informant. A load of meth was entering the state from California. The tip was good: The informant knew who was picking up the load, what type of car would be used, the date it was due to arrive and where it was going.
The dealers lived in a neighboring county. The sheriff filed his report with the Colorado Bureau of Investigation and passed the tip on to the sheriff in the county where the dealers lived. Imagine his surprise when, more than a year later, the very sheriff he had warned was arrested along with key members of his staff for running the meth-dealing ring.
Was that the defining moment for Bill Masters, sheriff of San Miguel County -- the idealistic officer who received the informant's tip and dutifully passed it on? He served on the front line of the War on Drugs even before he was appointed sheriff in 1979. He is the recipient of an award for outstanding achievement from the US Drug Enforcement Administration.
Masters had made numerous drug-related arrests and led countless more investigations. Today, he is one of this county's leading opponents of the drug war. In "Drug War Addiction," Masters tells us what knocked him off the war horse.
The son of a Marine who served in the South Pacific during World War II, Masters grew up in Los Angeles. After enlisting in the Coast Guard, he became a law enforcement officer. First elected as a Republican and then as a Libertarian who won 80 percent of the vote, he is now in his fifth term as sheriff of San Miguel County.
When Sheriff Masters takes us along with him on police training, investigations and arrests, he clearly knows whereof he speaks. It is his unique vantage point that makes "Drug War Addiction" such a valuable addition to the growing dialogue on the far-reaching effects of out country's most recent experiment with Prohibition. Indeed, according to Masters, America is addicted to its domestic war.
"The first way the drug war has become an addiction," he writes, "is obvious: law enforcement agencies are addicted to the money." Not only does that enable police departments to pay the salaries of additional staff, it also buys them guns and high-tech surveillance equipment. As famed economist and Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman has pointed out, local agencies benefit not just from this multibillion-dollar bonanza, but from the forfeiture of assets of suspected drug dealers.
In making them a beneficiary of its largesse, the drug war at the same time diverts law enforcement from pursuing its primary mission and appointed task of protecting the public against violent crime.
In regard to forfeiture, it isn't even necessary to charge or convict a suspect in order to seize his property; in fact, it's far simpler to threaten prosecution and take property in lieu of giving the suspect his day in court. Herein lies Master's second powerful point; the extent to which police departments are corrupted by drug prohibition.
It is often said that familiarity breeds contempt. It is equally true that familiarity breeds corruption. While it is impossible to know with the precision the extent to which law enforcement has been corrupted by the drug war because many infractions amount to just looking the other way or taking "a little cream off the top" from known dealers. The General Accounting Office has found that between 1993 and 1997, on average, half of all FBI - led - investgations into police misconduct were related to drug offenses. These investigation go all the way up to theft, perjury and murder.
The human face Masters puts on the corruption of law enforcement is his most indelible contribution. "Drug War Addiction" refreshes the national dialogue with poignant examples that bring the devastation and apparent futility of the War on Drugs all too painfully close to our doors.
Masters writes from the battle zone. Both supporters of the drug war and those who believe it is a failure will benefit from this brave warrior's message.
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