Capeless, Ruberto urge voters to say 'heck no'

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Yesterday, Pittsfield Mayor James M. Ruberto coined his own anti-drug catch-phrase when he urged Berkshire County residents to vote "heck no" on Question 2.

The controversial November ballot initiative aims to decriminalize marijuana possession for those caught with an ounce of pot or less. If Question 2 wins passage, the offense would shift from a crime to a civil infraction punishable by a $100 fine — the same amount as a speeding ticket.

More than two dozen Western Massachusetts officials, from police chiefs to prosecutors and politicians, gathered on the steps of Pittsfield City Hall yesterday to voice opposition to the initiative, which they believe gives "the wrong message" to children and criminals alike.

Berkshire District Attorney David F. Capeless was joined by his counterparts in Hampden, Hampshire and Franklin counties, all of whom made it clear that passage of the marijuana measure would essentially convey to children and young adults that smoking pot is no big deal.

Passage of Question 2 also would play into the hands of crafty drug dealers, according to officials, making it easier for them to skirt more serious charges by carrying smaller amounts of the drug.

The binding referendum will be put before voters on Election Day, Nov. 4.

Hampden District Attorney William M. Bennet, whose jurisdiction includes the high-crime cities of Springfield and Holyoke, seconded Ruberto's call to reject the ballot measure.

"I agree with the mayor," Bennet said. "Vote 'heck no' on Question 2."

Bennet, whose office is based in Springfield, said approval of the measure "would be a green light for young people to start using drugs."

Capeless addressed the issue from both a public safety and a public health standpoint. He said relaxing possession penalties would make it more difficult for police and narcotics investigators to do their jobs, while simultaneously increasing the likelihood of people driving while intoxicated.

"This is not your mother's marijuana or your father's marijuana," said Capeless. Today's pot, he said, is far more potent than the drug smoked during the Woodstock generation, for instance.

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Capeless cited recent nationwide surveys indicating that more than 40 percent of adolescents and young adults do not think it's dangerous to smoke and drive.

"They're going to get behind the wheel of that car," Capeless said, "and they're going to injure people."

Pittsfield Police Capt. Michael J. Wynn, the ranking officer in charge of the department, said the marijuana-possession threshold established by Question 2 is nothing to laugh at.

"An ounce of marijuana, in our mind, is distribution quantity," Wynn said. "That's enough to roll 100 joints."

Whitney A. Taylor, campaign manager for the "YES on Question 2!" initiative and chairwoman of the Committee for Sensible Marijuana Policy, took shots at Capeless and other law enforcement officials for their opposition to Question 2.

"Capeless' claims, like those made again and again by Question 2's opposition, are not based in fact," she said in a statement released after yesterday's rally at Pittsfield City Hall.

"They insist on attempting to convince voters that Question 2 is so-called 'legalization.' It's not," Taylor said. "Marijuana remains illegal under Question 2."

However, "if an individual is found possessing a small amount," she said, "it's confiscated and they are given a ticket."

Taylor also took issue with officials for allegedly downplaying the ramifications of getting caught with marijuana for the first time.

"While they maintain that no one gets a criminal record or report for marijuana possession — because offenders are given a continuance without a finding and probation — the truth is that a Criminal Offender Record Information report (or CORI) is generated upon arrest and has nothing to do with the court proceedings," Taylor said.

She said CORI reports are not "automatically sealed," but rather can continue to haunt offenders for years to come by creating obstacles to employment, housing and student loans.

To reach Conor Berry: cberry@berkshireeagle.com, (413) 496-6249.


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