University of Arkansas at Fort Smith (UAFS) students sparred Wednesday (Oct. 24) over the state initiative to legalize the sale of medical marijuana, which will come before the public at the Nov. 6 general election.
The students – Kalynn Barlow, Daniel Bender, Havilah Godfrey, David Klement, Dylan Learmont and Domanique Johnson – are members of the UAFS Honors International Study Program. Dr. Dennis Siler, director of the program and coordinator of the event, chose the Oxford Debate style in which audience members were free to voice their support by moving from one aisle to the other during the course of the debate to demonstrate support for the For and Against teams.
At the end of the debate, a final head count of where audience members sat determined the winner with the For team edging Against 35-32.
Siler said he was "pleased that we had a good turnout," adding that he expected "more movement back and forth. I didn't sense that a lot of people were changing sides."
"I think that this is a pretty galvanizing topic. I suspect a lot of people came here with their minds made up already, and it's really hard to change someone, whose mind is made up. Maybe if it was something that people didn't already have strong opinions about, but then it wouldn't have been as interesting of a topic for debate."
And the topic did seem to interest the 67 spectators in attendance at the Smith-Pendergraft Campus Center-Reynolds Room on Wednesday. Dr. Henry Rinne, dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at UAFS and moderator of the event, opened the floor for audience questions and comments. The 10-minute portion of the debate cycled through a number of willing participants, who asked the debaters about everything from economic implications to detrimental health effects.
While the debaters did not always have an answer, Siler believed "they did really well."
"They didn't know which side they were going to defend until this morning. I sent out an email to everyone at once, and they had to be equally prepared to defend either side. You could tell sometimes they were using some of their ammunition for the For side Against, and vice versa. So I thought they did really well."
The debaters were also unaware that the audience would have the open floor option until "a few moments before the event," according to Barlow.
"I did feel emotion creep in, especially whenever the audience got to be involved. And that was something we didn't expect. It was a big surprise to all of us. The thing that got me is that I wanted to go back and forth in rebuttal, but we didn't have the chance. We just had that one shot to give the information that we could and keep silent the rest of the time, which is frustrating at times."
Barlow was on the Against side with teammates Klement and Learmont. The For side consisted of Bender, Godfrey and Johnson.
Barlow admitted to being "neutral" on the topic prior to event preparation. "If anything, I was more for state's rights in affirming, but in doing the research, I actually came out opposing. I think it should be a federal decision in regulating laws for medical marijuana. Overall I'm still pretty neutral on the subject, but this whole experience did change my mindset some from where I stood on the whole situation," she said.
Bender, who delivered the closing remarks for his team, insisted that his shift of opinion was more dynamic. One of the biggest influences for Bender was the fact that "many of the founding fathers used it," a reference to the fact that President George Washington grew hemp at Mount Vernon.
"Before this, I was completely opposed. But the more I started researching into it – and of course, I believe in the founding fathers, so the fact they could use it and still be of sound mind while according to the definitions today, they would not be well-suited at all – it is more acceptable to me now, although I will personally never use it."
Bender continued: "Originally I had planned to be against, so it was all riding on the research and the historical precedent. This is one of the few things I've ever changed my opinion on."
Spectator Lauren Upton, a UAFS student, found the revelation about the country's founders a compelling one as well, but added that she knew "professional people that, when they were kids, had their days when they smoked it and they're making plenty of money now and plenty of good decisions."
Upton was unswayed by studies that pointed to side effects of marijuana. "I just can't find a legitimate reason not to (support) other than, 'It can have side effects.' But I know plenty of people who are fine. I don't know anyone who has suffered long term effects from it."
Barlow commended Bender and Klement on their closing arguments. "I think the last speakers on both sides of our teams did really well in getting the information out there and setting the views of each side, opposing and affirming."
And even though Barlow's team came up short Wednesday, the 18-year old Spanish major was still encouraged by the experience.
"I see this helping me along in life. In college, I'm realizing how apparent issues like this – how much people care. When you're young, you don't care about anything, so growing up and researching these things, you notice, 'Yeah, people do.' Especially with the open floor part of the debate, you could see input from adults on both sides who have different opinions on these issues, and that these are real issues being discussed, not just issues being brought to the classroom for academic purposes, but for real life," Barlow said.
Rinne said he was pleased with the participation.
"I think as you can just look at it, this issue will be a very close vote whichever way. But the official UAFS Honors Program result is we have 35 in favor and only 32 against. And I want to thank the audience's participation. We are going to plan some additional debates throughout the year on other issues. And I'll tell you, debating this has made me really hungry,” Rinne said in closing.