On Thursday, Claremont McKenna College’s (CMC) Dreier Roundtable hosted a student debate on drug legalization titled “Should all drugs be legalized?” The event provided a $750 cash prize for the winning team, which argued on the affirmative side, and a $150 consolation cash prize for the losing team.
The debate was part of the Dreier Roundtable initiative, which aims to encourage meaningful discourse among students on relevant and complex issues. Launched by alumnus and former U.S. Rep. David Dreier CM ’75, the Dreier Roundtable is intended to support CMC’s mission to become a leading institution in economics and government.
Throughout the debate, the winning affirmative team — composed of Elizabeth Barry CM ’26 and Tanzila Jama CM ’26 — focused on the potential of drug legalization to mitigate harms intrinsic to drug addiction and abuse. They argued that legalization may save lives by addressing increasing rates of lethal overdose in America and refuted any notion of drug legalization leading to an increase in drug usage.
Barry and Jama also emphasized the economic gains of legalization. Citing the $1 billion that California makes in annual marijuana tax revenue, they argued that such funds could be redirected to beneficial societal projects, thus reducing the costs associated with the criminal justice system.
The anti-legalization team — which included Viviana Alvarez de la Cadena Garza CMC ‘27 and Eliza Gunter CMC ‘27 — initiated their case by asserting that legalizing drugs would lead to an increase in usage, citing the correlation between marijuana legalization and a 65 percent increase in drug use among minors.
The two argued that the legalized drug industry can be corrupt, as evidenced by the opioid crisis. The tendency of doctors to overprescribe, they said, is a clear indication that commercial interests often trump ethical concerns in the pharmaceutical world.
The team also cited how the opioid epidemic costs trillions of dollars every year in emergency room visits, addiction treatments, and social services. They referenced a 54 percent increase in ER visits and a 110 percent increase in hospital visits related to marijuana, arguing that legalization would only exacerbate these issues.
For participants, the inclusion of cash prizes elevated the quality and intensity of the debate.
“I am probably going to give [the cash prize] to my parents,” Jamal, a member of the winning team, said. “I debated in high school, and I won a lot of medals, but I feel like this is finally a way for me to give back to my parents, who I love so much.”
While the losing team did not enjoy the same cash prize, they expressed their feelings of contentment with the discourse that their arguments helped generate.
“It didn’t go the way we were hoping. But the audience poll reflected that we had some impact on how people thought, and I think that’s all you can ask for,” Gunter said. “We wanted to advocate evidence and facts, and we managed to do that coherently.”
Jacob Smagula CM ’26, who helped plan the event as a student fellow of the Drier Roundtable, emphasized that this is one of the key components of a successful debate.
“A successful debate, to me, looks like something where anyone comes out of the room thinking, ‘wow, I’ve learned more about something that I’m really interested in and I want to do more,’” Smagula said.
To decide the winner, a panel consisting of two DRT student fellows and a faculty director, Terril Jones, used a specially designed rubric to judge arguments and discourse. Students were evaluated on presentation, organization, clarity of argument, respect for the other team and evidence. The rubric was designed to be inclusive, built with the acknowledgment that not every student at CMC has formal debate experience.
“We really want to create a rubric that would allow anyone to be successful if they researched their arguments, articulated them well and showed a lot of respect for the other team and for the topic at hand,” Smagula said.
During the debate, the audience was asked to respond to a poll asking them what they thought on the matter. Initially, 58.8 percent took the negative side, meaning that they were against the legalization of all drugs.
The dynamic range of evidence and perspectives throughout the event resulted in a significant shift in opinion. By the end, this number jumped to 77.1 percent. However, the judges felt differently, ultimately declaring the affirmative team — with Jamal and Barry — as the winners.
Both Jamal and Barry are hopeful that the debate will stimulate an ongoing discussion among CMC students and the rest of the 5C community.
“We’re looking forward to being able to convey our side despite the fact that we’re not necessarily the majority opinion,” Jamal said.
Another drug legalization debate, featuring scholars Keven Sabet and Nick Gillespie, is scheduled for Oct. 18 at the Athenaeum.