In Offbeat Aspen, Even the Sheriff's Race Has Quirks

By Judith Crosson
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, October 17, 2006

ASPEN, Colo. -- One candidate, the challenger, is a police officer who is also an artist. The other, the incumbent, is a long-serving sheriff who is writing a book about his close friend Hunter S. Thompson, the late "gonzo" journalist.

Only in Aspen.

On Nov. 7, voters in this posh mountain town will choose between five-time incumbent Sheriff Bob Braudis, 61, and Rick Magnuson, a police officer who is 20 years his junior and whose main issue is that the sheriff is too easy on drug users.

Braudis, who stands 6-foot-6 and looks like a Hollywood version of a Western sheriff, might be vulnerable on this. Though he promises to enforce drug laws, he is eager to tell anyone that tough penalties for drug use are not helping anyone and that addiction is a matter for health-care professionals, not jailers.

"The war on drugs provides more casualties than drugs itself," he argues.

Such statements are aiding Magnuson in his quest to paint the sheriff as a lawman stuck in the 1970s and '80s, when illegal drug use mostly meant marijuana. These days, Magnuson argues, people should be more concerned about heroin and methamphetamine.

In reality, however, the two men are not that far apart when it comes to enforcing drug laws. Braudis, a Boston native whose Jesuit high school education taught him Greek and Latin, said he is tougher than many people think. And Magnuson said he is mindful of the more tolerant attitudes toward drugs in the area.

Braudis, who has been sheriff of Pitkin County for 20 years, said he follows a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to teenagers using drugs or alcohol, though he is dead set against using undercover police to investigate illegal drugs.

"People assume I support intoxication and escapism," he said in an interview. "That's not true."

While Magnuson says he would employ undercover officers to ferret out illegal drug use, he acknowledges that Aspen is a little different from anyplace else.

"This is a party town," said Magnuson, who has done sculpture and performance art. "We do not want a heavy-handed police force. We don't want to look into someone's window to see if he is smoking a joint."

Attitudes toward drug use are, in fact, rather tolerant in and around Aspen. Recently, the Pitkin County commissioners unanimously endorsed a statewide ballot initiative that would decriminalize possession of up to one ounce of marijuana by adults. Even if the measure passes, federal law still prohibits marijuana use.

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