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UAFS plans ‘Oxford’ debate on medical marijuana

story by Aric Mitchell
amitchell@thecitywire.com

The medical marijuana debate will hit Fort Smith on Wednesday (Oct. 24) as University of Arkansas at Fort Smith (UAFS) students lock horns in an Oxford Debate from the Smith-Pendergraft Campus Center.

The Oxford Debate style is different and “more interactive” than what an electorate consumed with presidential debates is used to seeing, according to Dr. Dennis J. Siler, director of the Honors International Study Program and coordinator of the event.

“The way it works is, there are two teams of three each. They will not know which side of the debate they’re representing until the morning of the debate itself. The audience will vote during the debate by where they sit and which door they go through,” Siler told The City Wire. “Audiences can get pretty involved in the debate, and it’s pretty entertaining to watch them react to the presenters.”

Presenters will have “a little less than 10 minutes each” to present their arguments, Siler added.

HONORS PROGRAM
Participants include students in the Honors International Study Program, which according to Siler, is “unlike any program throughout the country” and includes 35 students from fields of study, such as “health sciences, biology and chemistry, which are basically pre-med, business, history, music education and music, and graphics arts majors.”

“The program really represents majors in all colleges of the university,” Siler said.

The students participating are Kalynn Barlow, Daniel Bender, Havilah Godfrey, David Klement, Dylan Learmont and Domanique Johnson. The students are from honors classes taught by Siler, as well as Dr. Henry Rinne, dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences and moderator of the event, and Dr. Joe Hardin, dean of the College of Languages and Communication.

COMFORT ZONES
Bender admits he is experienced with debating and looks forward to the possibility of “taking the other side.”

“It is actually easier to take the side you don't agree with in some cases. That way you can anticipate your counterpart’s argument. It also makes you less likely to get emotional and say something that can be exploited.”

Barlow isn’t so certain.

“Arguing on a point that I don't agree with is quite difficult; it feels almost as if I'm lying to myself or betraying my conscience. Fortunately, I am pretty neutral about this topic, so it'll be easier for me to argue for either side—that is, unless I form a strong opinion one way or the other while doing research,” she said.

Godfrey said “it can be somewhat difficult at first (taking an opposing side), but once you learn to draw yourself back from the topic at hand and focus on the given information, it becomes somewhat easier.”

Siler was eager to bring another Oxford Debate to UAFS, which hasn’t seen one since students used the format to battle over stem cell research in 2005.

He said he isn’t directly involved with how the six students are preparing for the event.

“I like to put my students into a situation and then step back and let them deal with it. They will ask, ‘What do you want us to do?’ and I will respond, ‘I want you to figure out how to make this happen,’ and they typically rise to the challenge.”

Siler continued: “Anything that pushes them out of their comfort zone is a good thing, especially when it is something they may not have given a lot of independent thought to. Sometimes we have a tendency to respond by a knee-jerk response, but with this debate they will have to articulate as will the audience, and I think that is the main benefit of it.”

BALLOT ISSUE NO. 5
The medical marijuana ballot issue in Arkansas — ballot issue No. 5 — would allow for up to 30 non-profit dispensaries in the state. Local cities and counties could choose to ban them.

Marijuana would only be available to people with a prescription for certain health conditions, including cancer, glaucoma, Hepatitis C, HIV/AIDS, Alzheimer’s disease and several other conditions.

The proposal allows for a patient to have up to 2.5 ounces of usable marijuana without the threat of prosecution.

A recent Talk Business-Hendrix College poll shows support slipping in Arkansas for the proposal.

Choosing medical marijuana as the topic of choice came by student vote from three introductory classes to Honors International Studies, narrowly beating out the debate over voter identification laws “by two or three votes,” Siler said.

Barlow is hoping the event will allow her to learn “how to effectively debate.”

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“I've never been a part of a formal debate before, so this is a first for me. I also hope that this experience will help sharpen my research skills, seeing as I am having to do much research over the topic. I hope that the audience will become more informed about what all is involved in the medical marijuana debate. For my classmates, I want to show them that any person can speak publicly and freely on any topic if they put the effort into it. I also would like the debate to be an encouragement to become more knowledgeable over issues in the world today.”

Bender said he wants to remind people that “everyone…has their own thoughts that are to be respected.”

“People forget that this nation was founded on the principle that people can peacefully resolve arguments, regardless of how different they may be, if they just talk about it.”
Godfrey agreed. “I hope that each of us can learn to put whatever bias or prejudice we have aside for the sake of the debate, and perhaps even change our minds a bit to at least see where the other side is coming from.”

Wednesday’s debate will start at noon in Room 129 of the Smith-Pendergraft Campus Center.

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