Officials rally against Question 2

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Specifically, they'll be voicing opposition to a November ballot initiative that would decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana. Better known as Question 2, the binding referendum would reduce the penalty for possession of an ounce or less from a criminal offense to a civil infraction punishable by a fine.

Prosecutors and many politicians and police officials staunchly oppose the ballot initiative, likening it to an endorsement of substance abuse and criminal activity.

Berkshire District Attorney David F. Capeless is expected to be joined outside City Hall today by Hampden District Attorney William M. Bennet and Northwestern District Attorney Elizabeth "Betsy" D. Scheibel, whose jurisdiction includes Hampshire and Franklin counties. Numerous other officials are slated to attend, including Berkshire County Sheriff Carmen C. Massimiano and state Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield.

The effort to defeat Question 2 is being spearheaded by the Coalition for Safe Streets, a grassroots organization comprised of law enforcement agencies, businesses, community leaders and others opposed to lessening the sting — and stigma — of marijuana possession.

"DA's around the state have been doing regional events" to lobby against Question 2, said Wesley Eberle of O'Neill and Associates, a Boston public relations firm hired by the coalition to galvanize opposition to the marijuana measure.

Meanwhile, the Boston-based Committee for Sensible Marijuana Policy is the major proponent of Question 2, which, according to backers, would eliminate unnecessary prosecutions and free up millions of dollars for cash-strapped police departments to fight violent crime.

The statewide issue has a local twist: The chairwoman of the marijuana committee, Whitney Taylor, a 38-year-old Boston resident, served as campaign director for Judith Knight, the Great Barrington attorney who lost the 2006 Berkshire district attorney's race to Capeless.

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The focal point of that race was the arrest of 19 young adults charged in connection with a 2004 drug sting in Great Barrington. Taylor, who was living with her family in Sheffield at the time, became active in a local group that lobbied Capeless for lenient prosecution in the cases.

Taylor, in a phone interview yesterday, said representatives from her organization would not be present at today's rally in Pittsfield. But the organization plans to issue a response to the event, she said.

The Committee for Sensible Marijuana Policy's main thrust is to prevent the creation of a CORI — or criminal offender record information report — for those caught with small amounts of marijuana.

"The creation of a CORI, that follows you for the rest of your life," Taylor said.

Massachusetts' current criminal guidelines allow for penalties of up to six months in jail and a $500 fine for those convicted of marijuana possession, who also will carry a lifetime criminal record.

Under the proposed law change, Taylor said, those caught with an ounce or less would face a $100 fine and offenders under age 18 would be required to complete a drug-awareness program.

Taylor, who is busy these days crusading on behalf of Question 2, is scheduled to debate the marijuana issue with Capeless on Thursday at 7 p.m. at Berkshire Community College. The debate will be held in BCC's Koussevitzky Theater.

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


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