Student Debate: Should Marijuana be Decriminalized?

Student Senate and PTK Debate

At Northampton Community College's (NCC) annual Martin Luther King Student Debate, the Student Senate and the honor society Phi Theta Kappa volleyed different Student Senate Team:  Dylan Vernon, Emily Hain and Patrick Grifonestances on a timely, controversial topic: "given that the 'war on drugs' has largely failed and has resulted in mass incarcerations in the black community, should marijuana now be decriminalized?" 

Arguing on the pro side, Patrick Grifone, Emily Hain, and Dylan Vernon of the Student Senate faced off against Elas Seip, Hunter Runge, and Anthony Petrelli, of the PTK team.  

The positions argued by the students were not necessarily their own; each team was assigned a side ahead of time.  Extensive research and preparation by both teams evidenced themselves by the many citations and quotes used and by the deftness with which debaters responded to each other and to questions from the audience.    

Each team had the chance to present their positions, rebut those of the other team, and give closing statements.  Moderator Dr. Brian Alnutt, assistant professor of history, gave a historical perspective: marijuana was legal in the United States until 1925.   

Decriminalization differs from legalization: decriminalization mandates fines rather than arrests for possession of small amounts, while legalization bars arrest if the possessor follows laws regarding age, place of consumption and amount.  Consumption is not permitted in public places.   

The Student Senate panelist posited that decriminalization would serve the country's best interests.  Their points included:
· In federal cases, judges lack discretionary sentencing, resulting in extreme penalties.  They cited two middle-aged fathers sentenced to 13 years in prison in one case, and life in prison without parole in the other. 
·  The billions of dollars spent on "the war on drugs" could be better employed by providing educational, health and human services programs.
· Cigarettes and alcohol are legal and yet they cause many deaths; marijuana use does not result in mortality.
· Incarceration rates in the United States are the largest in the world. 
· African Americans are 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than are whites. 
· Once a person is arrested, his or her record follows them forever, posing barriers to employment, housing and benefits.
·Thirty years after the War on Drugs was launched, marijuana use remains unaffected.
·People have a right to do what they wish in their free time, as long as their behavior doesn't harm others. 
·There is little or inconclusive research evidence that marijuana causes permanent health issues if the user started after adolescence,
·Marijuana can be helpful in medical situations; for example, a brain-damaged infant's seizures diminished after she ingested prescribed marijuana.
·For small amounts possessed, fines should be levied rather than prison sentences imposed.  Other countries follow this standard.  Arrests should be limited to public use, as it is in other nations. 
·Marijuana is not necessarily a gateway drug; occasional drinkers usually do not become alcoholics.
·The decision to use marijuana should be an individual choice.  
· Heavy marijuana users with resulting health conditions should be offered help rather than prison. 
·The damage caused by incarceration is worse than the legal consequences connected to the drug. 
·Looking back at history, some laws promoted by "moral crusaders" have since been disavowed. 
·Marijuana should be regulated as are tobacco and alcohol.  

The arguments of Phi Theta Kappa included:   PTK Team:  Anthony Petrelli, Hunter Runge and Elas Seip
· Decriminalization of marijuana could set a precedent for other mind-altering drugs.
·African Americans do not make up the majority of those arrested for marijuana.  In 2012, 13.9% of marijuana arrests involved African Americans, in contrast to 44% for whites and 42% for members of other groups. 
·99% of drug arrests are for drug trafficking with intent to sell.  Fewer than 1% are for possession only.  Decriminalization would therefore not help many people. 
·The majority of African Americans arrested for drugs are charged with possession of crack cocaine rather than for marijuana.
·Most of those people arrested for marijuana are actually pleading down to a lesser charge; the original charge had been for offenses carrying longer sentences and involving more serious crimes.
· Recreational marijuana use has already been decriminalized in several states, but people can still get arrested for public usage and possession with intent to distribute. ·Only one percent of arrests are made for possession alone.
· The root problem of mass incarceration of African Americans is social inequity and a prejudiced legal system.  This unfairness be addressed before considering decriminalizing marijuana. 
· Non-marijuana users should be free from second-hand marijuana smoke. 
·Drivers high on marijuana pose a risk of vehicle accident fatalities. 
· The marijuana on the market today is stronger than that sold in past years. 
·Contrary to popular ideas, it is not easy to open a marijuana dispensary.  Marijuana dispensers and their employees in states where marijuana is legal must be licensed yearly and pay costly fees.       

Debate judges were Jeffrey Armstrong, assistant professor, psychology; Tychelle Graham, resident director/counseling specialist; and Vertel Martin, professor of criminal justice.  They noted each side's fine performance.  They announced the Student Senate as the winner having based their decision on the team's powerful anecdotes bolstering their position, powerful suggestions for implementation and their inclusion of global awareness.