Talk of marijuana sparks lively debate

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District Attorney David F. Capeless clashed with Whitney A. Taylor, campaign manager for "YES on Question 2," during a debate on the contentious topic at Berkshire Community College.

Voters will consider Question 2, a binding referendum, when they go to the polls on Nov. 4.

The measure would replace the state's criminal penalties for possession of an ounce of pot or less with civil penalties, including a $100 fine for all offenders and mandatory drug education classes and community service for all minors.

Taylor and other Question 2 proponents say the goal is to keep people who are arrested for possessing small amounts of marijuana from acquiring criminal records, which could prevent them from getting jobs, housing or college loans.

But Capeless and the state's other 10 district attorneys, all of whom oppose Question 2, say an ounce of marijuana is not a small quantity of the drug, and passage of the measure would send the wrong message to commonwealth residents.

Taylor called Question 2 "a modest proposal" that would "end the arrest and booking process" for those caught with small amounts of pot. The goal, she said, is to prevent the generation of a Criminal Offender Record Information report, or CORI, which can haunt people for the rest of their lives.

"We believe that for this single offense ... that punishment does not fit the crime," she said.

Under current law, marijuana possession is punishable by fines of up to $500 and jail sentences of up to six months. However, if the ballot measure passes, the crime would turn into a $100 civil fine. Meanwhile, offenders under age 18 would be required to perform community service and to attend drug education classes.

Capeless said Question 2 is a first step toward decriminalizing marijuana, a gateway drug often linked to more serious crimes.

While marijuana use among teenagers has dropped over the past five years, Question 2 would buck that trend, according to Capeless.

"It sends the wrong message to our kids," he said, adding that overall marijuana use has declined by 25 percent nationwide since 2002.

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The district attorney predicted more young people would try the drug if Question 2 is approved.

An ounce of marijuana is equivalent to about 50 individual pot sales, or dozens of joints, according to law enforcement officials.

Taylor maintained that a person caught with a small amount of pot could face negative ramifications for years to come, particularly when it comes to finding employment.

But Capeless strongly refuted that claim, pointing out that the case of a first-time offender would be continued without a finding for six months. At that point, the charge would be dismissed and the criminal record would be sealed, Capeless said.

"Sealed means sealed," the district attorney said with emphasis, "and no CORI check will ever reveal that record."

Capeless said the notion that a person will have a record that follows them through life is simply untrue.

No matter, Taylor said, " A piece of paper is spit out that says 'Sealed Record.'" And that, she said, could be bad enough for anyone looking for a job, a loan or an apartment.

Taylor claimed the state spends roughly $30 million annually in police resources to enforce current marijuana possession laws, funds that could be better spent combating violent crime.

Capeless and other law enforcement officials have questioned the veracity of that figure, noting that, in most cases, people who are incarcerated typically have multiple charges lodged against them, not merely a pot possession charge.

The debate was sponsored by the Berkshire Fatherhood Coalition and Berkshire Community College.

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


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