Question 2 carries economic, social cost

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On Nov. 4, Massachusetts voters will be asked to choose whether they want our neighborhoods and our families to be the testing ground for what The Economist magazine has called the most radical marijuana ballot initiative in the country.

Passage of Question 2 will decriminalize marijuana use and turn possession of an ounce or less of marijuana into a $100 fine, similar to one you'd get for a speeding ticket. For kids under the age of 21, the penalties for marijuana possession would be less than the current penalties for alcohol possession. Drug use and abuse will increase among children and adults, and Massachusetts communities and families — not the well-heeled, out-of-state proponents of Question 2 — will be left to deal with the consequences.

Voters will choose between a steadily-declining rate of marijuana use among teenagers in Berkshire County and across Massachusetts or sending the message to our young people that drug use is safe and acceptable.

Here in Berkshire County, a No vote on Question 2 is urged by our entire legislative delegation, Sheriff Massimiano, Mayors Barrett and Ruberto, our police chiefs, and community leaders from the clergy, professional substance abuse treatment community, youth prevention groups and others. They are joined by Governor Patrick, Attorney General Coakley and other community leaders across the commonwealth.

Despite the best efforts of Question 2 backers to paint marijuana as harmless, the facts are clearly otherwise.

Kids who smoke marijuana are more likely to do poorly in school, more likely to require counseling, more likely to engage in violence and — perhaps most importantly — are more likely to get behind the wheel of a car high on marijuana. According to MADD, 41 percent of teens are not concerned about driving high on marijuana — a shocking number considering drivers who've smoked pot are 10 times more likely to be injured, or to injure others, in automobile crashes. Marijuana is more carcinogenic than tobacco and is a major factor in juvenile hospital admissions. To use marijuana, children have to buy it — from drug dealers — putting themselves at enormous risk.

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We should call Question 2 the drug dealer protection act. Why? Because Question 2 will enable and embolden drug dealers and allow them to carry up to an ounce of marijuana without the threat of criminal prosecution. Despite the best efforts of proponents to paint an ounce of marijuana as something too small to be worth the attention of the police and courts, the fact is that one ounce of marijuana is worth from $300 to $600 and represents about 60 individual sales. Risking only a $100 fine (and no criminal record) is an obvious business decision for a drug dealer and a tempting choice for someone thinking about it.

Question 2's supporters argue that existing laws unfairly and harshly punish those who have been caught with an ounce or less of marijuana. But that simply isn't true.

Under the present law, a first-offense for possession of marijuana will automatically result in a dismissal and a sealed record after six months. Statewide, of the 174 people locked up in 2006 for marijuana there was not one case where that possession charge was a first offense. Instead, those sentenced were guilty of prior convictions, had violated parole or probation or were also convicted of another, more serious crime.

What about claims that our current drug laws are unfairly denying access to student loans for first-time offenders? Again, not true. Only a conviction — not a juvenile delinquency or a dismissal for a first-time-offender — leads to a temporary one-year suspension of federal loans.

Passage of Question 2 will come at an incredible social and economic cost to all of us. Drug abuse will cost America $258 billion just this year. Here in Massachusetts, we can count on increased health costs, traffic injuries and fatalities, increased law enforcement costs, lost productivity, lowered workplace safety, and the heavy toll of addiction on families and neighborhoods. Vote No on Question 2.

David F. Capeless is Berkshire County district attorney.


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