About 150 students at Santa Monica College heard four panelists debate a question this week that, while hardly new, doesn't seem to be aging very gracefully: Should marijuana be legalized?
"We have the inherent human right to put into our bodies whatever we want," said Neal Donner, chairman of a local arm of the Libertarian Party of California, who, along with his daughter, SMC student Rebecca Donner, argued in favor of legalization. "It is not the state's responsibility to protect us from our own errors."
"Government has the right to protect its citizens," said Beth Wetmore, an SMC student who, along with Sgt. John Miehle of the Santa Monica Police Department, argued against legalization. "The rights of the majority of the people should be paramount."
The student audience, most of them sitting on the grass for the 1-hour outdoor debate, hissed, booed, applauded and turned in questions for the panelists.
"It's an issue that's really powerful with the students on this campus," said Cara Poston, director of activities for the Associated Student Government, which organized the debate. "We have a lot of students here who use marijuana recreationally, and they wanted to see the issue addressed."
Poston said she conducted a poll asking students to suggest debate topics, and legalization of marijuana was the overwhelming choice.
Miehle, who was greeted with hisses as he stepped to the lectern, contended that marijuana use affects non-users as well as users, and that legalizing it would spread health hazards and cause traffic accidents.
"I've got a right to drive home," Miehle said. "I don't want to have a marijuana smoker driving next to me."
Marijuana has 50% more tar than does tobacco, he said, adding that he would ban cigarettes, too, if he had his way. Smoking marijuana damages the brain, lungs and the male reproductive system, he said, and intensifies the effects of epilepsy and psychosis.
Miehle also warned that making marijuana lawful would encourage the legalization of stronger drugs such as hashish and hashish oil, an idea that several students applauded loudly.
Wetmore said one joint can have the effect of 16 cigarettes because of pot smokers' common habit of inhaling deeply and holding smoke in the lungs several seconds before exhaling.
Rebecca Donner said cigarettes kill an estimated 328,000 people a year, but nobody has died from smoking marijuana. "Twenty-two million people in this country are criminals--criminals because they use a drug that has not yet caused a death," she said.
She argued that legalization would mean government regulation, the elimination of the black market, and the defusing of political tensions caused by border drug patrols.
"Let's just say no to the government invasion of our private lives," Donner said.
"If people who use marijuana commit crimes, then arrest them for those crimes, but not for smoking marijuana, because that is not a crime," Neal Donner said.
"Sooner or later we're going to find ourselves imprisoned if we eat saturated fats, if we eat too much sugar, if we wear our belts too tight. Where does it stop?"
The debate was the first of a series planned by the Associated Student Government to address topics of concern to students.