L. Neil Smith's
THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 292, October 10, 2004
"It's not what it is. It's what it means."
Battling the War On Drugs
Special to TLE
Colorado Sheriff Bill Masters is on a crusade. Of course, he does his job working to protect the citizens of his county and arresting the bad guys there. But his greatest passion is reserved for righting what he sees as a truly great wrong, and that wrong is the so-called War on Drugs.
There's little question that Masters is fighting on the right side despite the seeming incongruancy of a law enforcement officer coming out against the War on Drugs. But he's seen firsthand, and heard stories directly from others with similar experiences, just how little good and how much evil the existing drug prohibition in this country has done. Any law enforcement officer who takes seriously his oath to protect "civilians" can't ignore insensible statutes; inconsistent enforcement; draconian penalties all too frequently unfairly applied; the temptations for abuse of authority; and the massive waves of crime and violence encouraged and abetted under prohibition. And Masters doesn't. Instead, he works toward sorely needed reform.
Sheriff Masters was once an uncompromising enforcer of drug laws. In fact, he won an award for being so good at it. But in the face of evidence that showed him the War on Drugs was more of a problem than the drugs themselves, and his notion that there are better ways to deal with those drug problems not actually caused by enforcement activities, he determined that repeals and reforms were the only logical way to proceed. Several years ago, he wrote a book entitled Drug War Addiction. In that book, he revealed much of what he'd learned about the War on Drugs over his years in law enforcement, and he offered his own ideas for ways to address both drug use and drug enforcement in a more efficient, effective, and rational way.
Masters has now published The New Prohibition: Voices of Dissent Challenge the Drug War. This book consists of a collection of essays all discussing and dissecting the American War on Drugs. Masters wrote one of the included essays himself, and serves as the editor for the rest. The New Prohibition isn't the first book to criticize American drug policy and the War on Drugs. But what sets The New Prohibition apart isn't its subject matter nor the fact it's a collection of essays. No, what makes The New Prohibition different and gives it maximum impact is that its viewpoints come from so many differentand authoritativedirections. (For more on The New Prohibition, read our book review.)
After having read both books, I had a few questions for Sheriff Masters which he kindly took the time to address.
Lady Liberty: I've heard it said in the past that law enforcement officers take an oath to uphold the law. It doesn't matter whether they like a particular law or not, they must enforce it. Is that true?
Sherriff Bill Masters: Police officers have a tremendous amount of discretion in the enforcement of law. Few laws (some domestic violence laws, etc.) actually require that law enforcement officers make arrests. 90 percent of a good police officer's activities involve resolving problems without the application of legal processes.
LL: I'm not the only person that has suggested that law enforcement officers simply refuse to enforce a law that's just plain wrong, much as I would advocate juries to take advantage of their powers of jury nullification. Is that what you did in connection with the various laws that make up the War on Drugs?
SBM: No. We, the sheriff's office, do not refuse to enforce any law. There may come a time when the application of the law is the best answer to a problem. Really bad laws are recognized as such only after the police apply the letter of the law to the issue. If the police arrested everyonenot just kids and black people but prescription pill popping and pill sharing housewives, Jeb Bush's ("just a private family matter") daughter, Rush Limbaugh etc.who violated any drug law, "normal people" (white voters) would demand change. Just like other wars, change doesn't really happen until middle American kids are coming home in body bags with no end in sight.
LL: I trust your decision-making abilities. I've read your books, and you're obviously interested in constitutionality and in what I'd call libertarian logic. But what about those in law enforcement who can't be trusted?
SBM: Listen, the problem is not with law enforcement being trusted. They are just doing what the legislative branch tells them to do and funds them to do. Put the blame on the senators and congressmen who are "states' rights, small federal government" talkers [but who] then vote to fund federal drug enforcement on all levels. Put them on the discussion panels, not the cops.
LL: You determined some time ago that the War on Drugs was wrong. Did you change your attitude suddenly, or was it a gradual shift? What was the "straw that broke the camel's back" so to speak that tipped you to the other side in the War on Drugs?
SBM: I really always felt this way. I just forgot to listen to logic and my true conservative (limited government/personal responsibility) roots. The straw for me was the misallocation of law enforcement dollars away from homicide investigations and now terrorism prevention and into busting pot smokers.
LL: Did you debate the matter with your colleagues?
SBM: Most cops don't debate the law. The ones that do, besides the political hacks, know that change is needed.
LL: Once you made your decision, what was the reaction of your colleagues? How about that of your superiors?
SBM: I am an elected official, so I have no superior other then the public I serve. Most of my colleagues thought I was crazy or a drug user. Most now are beginning to understand that change is in the air. Some even say that the drug war is over.
LL: Many people are convinced that the War on Drugs is bad, or at least unwinnable. The federal government, however, has made it clear that it disagrees. How can local and state authorities overcome the threat implicit in that fact?
SBM: Don't make it a liberal issue; make it a conservative one. It is, pure and simple, a nanny statebig federal government, wasteful spending, no states' rights issues. True Democrats should love it, and true Republicans should hate it.
LL: Obviously, if you had a magic wand, you'd wave it and make a few changes. If you could literally rewrite American drug policy overnight, what would it look like tomorrow morning?
SBM: 1. States decide the drug laws that are best for them; 2. People have a constitutional right to decide what goes into their bodies; 3. People, not objects, are judged harshly for their actions that directly hurt or endanger others.
It's cynical to say so, but I also suspect it's all too true that Sheriff Masters' suggestions make too much sense for the authorities to suddenly adopt. Too many agencies have become dependent on the money they get from forfeitures based on drugs or the accusations of drugs (something Masters addresses in his book Drug War Addiction). At least as many have also become enamored with their own authority. But at least we do know that, when the time comes, there are people ready with cogent alternatives to the War on Drugs. We can only hope that it won't, as Masters puts it, take too many more American kids in body bags to initiate the needed changes.
My thanks go out to Sheriff Masters first and foremost for his thought-provoking books, and for taking the time to talk about his views. For more about The New Prohibition: Voices of Dissent challenge the Drug War, read our book review [http://www.ladylibrty.com/book_review.html]. The New Prohibition is available from Amazon.com, or directly from the publisher.