Debate Sets the Stage for Reefer Madness

Theater production spurs conversation on the legalization of marijuana.

As a tie-in with the production of Reefer Madness, a satire based on the 1930s anti-marijuana propaganda film of the same title that is currently running at the Annie Russell Theatre, Rollins College hosted a formal debate on the subject of marijuana legalization on Saturday, September 26.

At times serious and at other times light-hearted, the debate was held in front of an audience of about 150 people with a backdrop from the production, featuring a collection of 1950s-style posters that exaggerate the dangers of marijuana.

The debate teams represented two sides. According to the formal rules of debate, the side making the positive proposition—in this case, that marijuana should receive full legalization in the United States—represented “the government” position, while the side attacking this proposition represented “the opposition.” Kate Knight ’19 and Madeleine Scott ’19 and represented the government, while Brandon Abrams ’17 and Brandon Manbahal ’19 represented the opposition.

Sponsored by the Rollins Department of Philosophy, the debate, rather than focusing on scientific facts relating to marijuana use today, focused more on the philosophical issues of natural rights, self-actualization, and the right of the state to regulate behavior and protect the public.

The government side explored John Stuart Mills’ ideas about the right of individuals against parternalistic state control and argued that marijuana use does not harm society at large and is a matter of individual choice, and thus should not be subject to harsh penalty. In fact, they argued, people should be able to smoke marijuana even in public places.

The opposition disputed this point, noting that even alcohol and tobacco face public restrictions because they can affect others in harmful or unpleasant ways. They cited legal scholar Ronald Dworkin, who was deeply concerned with the conditions under which governments may use coercive force over their citizens and the need for law to proceed from ideal conceptions of morality. They argued that governments have an interest in encouraging people to be productive and make maximum use of their abilities, which marijuana undermines. They agreed that marijuana should be used for medicinal purposes, but that recreational drug use prevents people from using their energies in positive ways.

Near the end, arguing against the idea that governments can receive tax benefits from the legitimate use of marijuana, the opposition debaters claimed that governments spend more on dealing with the social harm of drug use than they would make in tax revenue.

After convening with the other judges, Professor of Philosophy Tom Cook—after noting that the judges themselves got into a fierce debate about the issue and about which side won—revealed the final decision: The government prevailed.