A Tough Pill to Swallow

Marlon Castillo/New University


The Dean’s Ambassador Council hosted the fifth annual Hot Topics debate, which explored the controversy of marijuana legalization, on Wednesday, April 18 at the Donald Bren Hall. The debate was moderated by Wayne Sandholtz, professor of political science, and was held in two parts. A prelude debate between Dr. Nathan Jones and Dr. Alfonso Valdez was followed by the main debate between former UC Irvine professor William Schonfeld and current professor Mark Petracca.


The prelude debate was focused on whether or not marijuana should be made legal in the United States and in other countries. By contrast, the main debate concentrated exclusively on what actions California should take on marijuana.


The debate put the defenders of marijuana in a difficult position as both Valdez and Schonfeld had to defend a substance they never claimed to use. It was especially difficult for Valdez because he had previously been involved in prosecuting drug traders and included this conflict in his defense of marijuana legalization.


“I am saying that this is rather difficult because I was a police officer for 30 years and in the drug wars as an undercover narcotics officer, and I never thought I would be speaking about legalizing the substances especially when I fought so hard against them,” Valdez said.


Despite his personal history in the war on drugs, Dr. Valdez argued that laws outlawing marijuana should be struck down, citing the failures of the war on drugs and the rise in violence that it has created.


On the contrary, Dr. Jones argued that marijuana should continue to be illegal in the United States and should be made illegal globally because of the negative health effects of marijuana. Both debaters were given time for rebuttals and the audience was allowed to ask each of the debaters questions about their points.


The primary debate was between William Schonfeld, former dean of the School of Social Sciences and Mark Petracca, associate dean of political science. Schonfeld argued that California should legalize the sale, distribution and consumption of marijuana while Petracca argued that California should continue to outlaw the sale, distribution and consumption of marijuana. Schonfeld argued that the illegality of marijuana causes people who consume marijuana to be involved with criminals and drug dealers in order to get marijuana, that it increases crime and government spending to account for the increase in crime, and that it weakens the rule of law by creating criminals out of people who obey all other laws.


Petracca countered by emphasizing the harmful side effects of marijuana on the human body, that use of marijuana by individuals can put other individuals at risk, and that democratically elected governments have voted to make marijuana illegal. Both Schonfeld and Petracca were allowed to have rebuttals and answered questions from the audience.


Some in the audience were surprised by how the debaters defended their arguments, including sophomore Matthew Mendoza who had heard both debaters before the debate.


“From my experience with both debaters, being a [political science] major myself, I thought that Professor Petracca would dance around the point a little more than he did, but he seemed to be the one that actually got to the point more than  [Professor Schonfeld],” Mendoza said. “But [Schonfeld’s] methods were also interesting because he attempted arguments that downgraded Professor Petracca’s points more than I expected them to.”


Mendoza was not alone. Freshman Christiana Paissios was also among those who got more out of the debate than they were expecting.


“As someone who supports Schonfeld’s argument, I actually really enjoyed Petracca’s and found that he made a lot of really important points, especially about the greater welfare of society versus someone’s personal liberty,” Paissios said.


The debate was organized with the intention of injecting new life into the argument over marijuana legalization and to bring the facts to students who may have lacked the opportunity to hear both sides of the issue.


The Hot Topics debates are intended to give UCI students and staff an opportunity hear both sides of popular issues in today’s society. Dean’s Ambassador’s Council member Hillary Patton was instrumental in organizing the debate and supported the Council’s work in getting students and staff together to connect and to express their ideas freely.


“We host events throughout the quarters to bridge the gap between faculty and students, to bring us closer together,” Patton said.