Thinking man’s approach to the war against drugs

A veteran Colorado sheriff has unveiled a novel new weapon in the war on drugs: common sense.

After years of watching law enforcement agencies nationwide use seized drug assets to bolster departmental budgets, motor pools and armories, San Miguel County Sheriff Bill Masters decided to take the road less travelled.

Three months ago he took $10,000 from the seizure of a drug house and put it into a special loan account against which victims of substance abuse could borrow funds to pay for treatment.

Using seized drug assets to help pay for drug rehabilitation seems like a simple enough concept, but it’s not common practice. Such windfalls usually are plowed directly back into law enforcement.

“These assets need to be applied to make the victim whole. Who’s the victim? It’s not the police department, it’s the user,” he said in a recent telephone interview. “The problem is, law enforcement agencies have become addicted to the drug war.”

Based in the small, rural community of Telluride, Masters has been sheriff for the past 22 years. He said he used to be a “strong drug warrior Republican sheriff,” but the conduct of the highly politicized war on drugs began to make less and less sense to him.

Millions, Masters said, were being spent on drug enforcement while pennies went to drug rehabilitation. Assets seized from drug operations, he added “turn into a kind of police slush fund and I think that’s a bad policy.”

Masters felt using drug assets to help fund treatment seemed like a more reasonable use of the ill-gotten gains.

All too often, he said, getting into a program for substance abuse is based on one’s income. If you have the money, you get into rehab, but “if you’re poor, black or Hispanic, you wind up languishing in jail.”

Having the money available makes it a little easier for substance abusers to seek help and also gets rid of financial hardship as a convenient excuse to put off treatment.

The program in San Miguel County is not an easy-money cash giveaway for anyone seeking a quick fix.

“It’s not a gift. We expect them to pay it back, to be responsible for paying it back, even if they can only afford $25 a month,” Masters said. “That’s so much a part of recovering – taking responsibility. A lot of what we’re missing today is personal responsibility.”

Applying for the loan is as easy as talking to Masters. If someone needs the money for treatment and has a sincere desire to get straight, the sheriff will listen.

“Just call me. There’s no loan committee here. Tell me what rehab you’re going to and we’ll work it out,” he said.

It’s a little too early to tell how successful the program will be, but Masters said he has strong support from his county commissioners and he’d like to see the project grow in the future.

What a concept – using drug money to pay for drug rehabilitation.

Hell, it might just work…