Tough love in the war on drugs
In the war on drugs, Steve Mason is a veteran in transition.
The sheriff’s sergeant helped start Nevada County’s narcotics task force in 1980, about the time Nancy Reagan began preaching that just saying no was the answer.
In some ways, Mason’s outlook was just as absolute back then, especially when it came to methamphetamine, which he calls the county’s most devastating street drug.
Meth cookers and dealers – folks the task force’s head has staked out countless long nights, whose labs he’s dismantled – need to experience swift consequences, he’s always believed. He still does.
So it meant shifting gears when Mason became a part of the Nevada County Drug Court, which takes a tough-love approach to drug offenders trying to beat addiction.
Drug Court clients can stay out of jail so long as they stay clean and employed or in school while attending counseling or treatment. A positive test for drugs, and they’re locked up.
“It’s never something I would’ve considered a long time ago. In fact, I came into the program kind of kicking and screaming a little bit, saying, ‘This is not the way things should be,'” he said.
“People have to pay for their indiscretions, but knowing these people over such a period of time, I had a relationship with them, and I could see the desire and the frustration in their ability to change.”
Judge Al Dover, the first to preside over Drug Court, taught him a lot. “I guess it would be a combination of empathy, compassion and just putting out a hand once in a while,” Mason said.
Mason’s turnaround wasn’t the only one.
The very folks he’s busted over the years want him to stay in Drug Court. But whether he could stay had been in question until recently, because of Sheriff Keith Royal’s philosophy of rotating assignments every few years.
Mason will be transferred at the end of this month. But he’ll get to stay on with Drug Court and keep lending his expertise, Royal said.
Matt Bandy is relieved. The 39-year-old Grass Valley man was 12 when Mason began arresting him.
“Some other cop can come in and learn the ropes, but after so many years, (Mason) can just look in our eyes and tell if we’re using,” Bandy said. “He can tell because he knows our actions.”
Bandy hit bottom in October 2000, when he was facing 11 years in prison for yet another meth charge. In jail, he suffered a stroke – from cooking meth chemicals without a respirator or gloves, he figures – that paralyzed half his body, sagging one side of his face.
“I was sitting there, looking at myself in the mirror, and I said, ‘God, I don’t want to go through this the rest of my life,'” he said.
Bandy said Mason and Cyna Kern, a probation officer on the Drug Court team, gave him a last chance. His paralysis subsided and his teeth – eroded from years of smoking meth and subpar dental care in prisons – were replaced with bright dentures.
In court on March 11, Mason and others laughed when Bandy shared the irony of his prison career.
Having served 18 different prison terms, “I got to live in all these different towns and never see them,” Bandy told Judge John Darlington.
Dwaine Frye, 39, went on a similar path starting at 13.
“I’ve been in every prison you can name. San Quentin, Folsom, Corcoran, Soledad. … You name it, I’ve been there, and drugs were my life,” he said.
“It’s not that I didn’t care,” he said before a brief pause. “Actually, I didn’t care. That’s just what it was.”
That changed in 1999, when the Grass Valley man promised his dying father – while visiting his bedside under a jailer’s escort – he’d find ways to change. Frye was paroled March 29, 2000, his first birthday not behind bars since he was 18.
He entered a residential treatment program and, after getting out, Mason invited him for coffee.
“We talked, and it was like, Steve asked if I was just doing this to get off parole, or was I really trying to change my life?” Frye recalled. “I said, hey, I was done. I was tired of hurting the ones I loved.”
Mason asked Frye to be a mentor, to share his experiences with other recovering addicts. Frye agreed and now, he said, “I consider Steve my friend.”
Frye was never a Drug Court client, but he attends sessions to provide support and is also a counselor at Nevada County Substance Abuse Treatment and Recovery. He hopes to become a certified counselor.
Outside the courthouse, Bandy and Frye reflected on the impact of their sobriety.
“Just me and him getting clean, it took the majority of drugs off the street. I mean, that’s the God’s honest truth,” Bandy said.
Mason, asked later, said: “They were responsible for a lot. People are still, to this day and age, totally surprised when they see Dwaine and Matt and where they are now, compared to where they were on the street for 20 years.
“I chased Matt as a little kid, and Dwaine and I have played the game, and it’s nice to see where they’re at; and they’re hoping they can help.”
Mason also agrees with their assessment that the meth trade is rampant as ever – but in different ways. Labs are producing less meth, but there are more labs.
“I would say the amount of drugs out there is probably a little more because you have so many people out there manufacturing these days,” he said. “You don’t have the big glassware setups that we did in the past, but you have just a ton of these little dinky labs where they’re cooking a couple of ounces. They add to it on the street because they sell to make the money to recoup to do it again.”
Mason has studied the drug most of his career. As part of his education, he’s even cooked the stimulant, whose recipe can include Drano and Red Devil lye.
He’s testified as an expert witness in state and federal trials, and he’s taught classes to all levels of law enforcement. He’s been across California and to New Mexico and Arizona.
“I believe, from what I see, that we’re making a difference. You have to continue with the enforcement aspect, but coupled with the other programs, you can make a difference,” he said.
“People say that drugs are victimless crimes. Well, they’re not because they ultimately affect all kinds of people – the person’s family, kids, ancillary crimes, whatever it happens to be.
“So, you have to do what is reasonable to make the community a safer place.”
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