When he was riding high, Sheriff Jimmy Glass was considered to be the godfather of Henry County. "You can't give me a ticket," supporters sometimes scoffed at deputies who stopped them for speeding. "I know Jimmy Glass."

Like many other powerful rural sheriffs, Glass didn't have a worry in the world. Elected to three terms by a landslide, he was king of the county. He had the votes.

Now, he stands convicted in federal court, along with Probate Judge Larry Tew, Police Chief Herschel Childs and a former county commissioner, of conspiring to help smugglers land Quaaludes and cocaine at a local airport. And they are not alone.

At least 40 Georgia lawmen or public officials have been accused of serious drug offenses over the last two years. Many have been tempted by payoffs of up to $50,000 per planeload.

"There have been so many public officials arrested and indicted in this state, it's like going back to moonshine days," said Ray Vinsik, 45, regional director of the Drug Enforcement Administration. "During Prohibition, times were hard and bootleggers had plenty of money to run liquor and buy people off. We're facing the same times now."

In recent months, undercover operations by state and federal agents have led to the arrests of a Georgia state senator who promised drug smugglers carte blanche if they financed his bid for governor, six sheriffs and ex-sheriffs, two police chiefs, two county commissioners, six deputy sheriffs, two state troopers, nine police officers, a police narcotics squad secretary, one agent with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, one county prison warden, two deputy prison wardens, a state forest ranger, and eight Coast Guard sailors guarding the coast against drug smugglers.

Georgia faces a "greater smuggling problem than any state except Florida," said Georgia Bureau of Investigation director Phil Peters. Indeed, Georgia ranks third behind Florida and Texas in the amount of drugs ($6 billion worth) estimated to flow annually through the state, and third in the number of drug aircraft seized.

But as Latin-dominated smuggling rings shift up the coast from Florida to Georgia, "You're going to have Latins trying to deal with rednecks," said Al Pringle, a former DEA regional director who directs the Miami-based federal task force of 250 Customs Service and DEA agents, "and the only way to insure their drugs will get through is money."

Despite Florida's preeminence in the drug field, it hasn't kept pace with its neighbor when it comes to arresting policemen and other (former or incumbent) public officials. At one point last year, a Georgia public official was being arrested on drug charges every 19 days. Consider one harvest:

A deputy sheriff in southeast Georgia's Appling County "just realized something wasn't right" as residents reported low-flying planes disappearing behind tall pines to the sheriff and nothing was done. So Lewis Parker said in an interview that he quit--"God just told me to resign"--and pondered why so many folks "with no permanent jobs seemed to be prospering." He just had a hunch.

After he was elected sheriff in 1980, he braved death threats to call in state and federal agents. They followed a paper trail of conspicuous consumption: an ex-sheriff who paid cash for 10 acres of land and a double-wide trailer, a dairy farmer in debt who bought a $40,000 Mercedes 450 SL. Agents turned one smuggler into an informer and engineered a drug bust that wound up with 11 locals' getting prison terms and fines.

The trial yielded other allegations. Prosecution witnesses testified that one sheriff of a nearby county was offered $30,000 in 1980 to allow drug planes safe passage, but the man said he wouldn't take less than $40,000. Another county sheriff testified that he was offered $50,000 to let marijuana-laden planes land in his county, but he immediately told the FBI.

What makes Georgia so attractive to smugglers is its proximity to the drug-shuttling Caribbean islands, the crackdown in Florida and the dearth of law enforcement officials patroling south Georgia. There are too many law enforcement officers with overlapping jurisdictions in Florida, so no one can guarantee safe passage.

In Georgia's rural outback, however, the sheriff is often a one-man band, with the nearest Georgia Bureau of Investigation agent 50 to 100 miles away. The sheriff can't be everywhere and, if he has agreed to turn his head like Jimmy Glass, he might take the bribe and stay out of the way.

"Corruption is as often a crime of omission as commission," says GBI special operations director Jimmy Davis.

But there was nothing subtle about Towns County Sheriff Jack McKay. He was convicted April 16 of conspiring to grow and distribute more than 4,000 pounds of marijuana in north Georgia with the chief voting registrar, a Hiawassee city employe and three others, sentenced to 25 years in prison and fined $50,000.

The conviction of the sheriff, often the most powerful and respected man in the county, on drug charges shocked residents who trusted him for years.

"Jimmy Glass had so much power, it created a Frankenstein," said a nervous Henry County police officer who asked that his name not be used because he still feared his old boss. "He just felt, with all his power, no one could touch him."

It also breeds wisecracks from tourists stopped for speeding, said Henry County deputy Ernest Wise. "They all say, 'You're locking me up for speeding and your sheriff and police chief are locked up for smuggling!' " One gray-haired woman declared on a television newscast that she wouldn't believe Jimmy Glass was guilty even if she saw him take cash in broad daylight.

So distressed was the 159-member Georgia Sheriff's Association over the arrests of more than a dozen former or current sheriffs and deputies on drug charges that it lobbied the state legislature to pass a bill to force removal of a sheriff under investigation on criminal charges. The bill passed on the day one more sheriff was indicted on drug charges.

"I just don't buy the theory that they make so little money they have to hire on to a drug operation," said Cobb County Sheriff Bill Hutson, president of the sheriff's association. He defended his colleagues against "a few bad apples who know how much the job pays. They don't have to take it."

Yet, money, or lack of it, is a dilemma. Sheriff Dick Mecum was so strapped for cash to fight drug dealers in Hall County that he took out a $2,000 personal loan from the First National Bank of Gainesville to finance an undercover operation after county commissioners told him there was no money. His bust not only embarrassed local politicians, but also led to the seizure of $800,000 in uncut cocaine, $12,000 in Quaaludes and $2,500 in amphetamines.