The Subtleties of Argumentation

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One ballot initiative that  Arkansas voters will decide on this year is whether to legalize recreational marijuana. Voting for or against this measure would seem to be a fairly clear-cut decision: either you are for or against letting those twenty-one and older purchase small amounts of marijuana for personal use. Thus far, marijuana use is only legal for medical purposes in Arkansas.

The choice of claims is clear: You should vote for Issue #4, or you should vote against Issue #4. This is a perfect example, however, to let students see the subtleties of argumentation as they play out in the real world.

Frankly, most students would not oppose legislation that would allow the purchase of recreational marijuana. Students who do oppose would argue the physical harm that comes from smoking marijuana or the dangers of driving under the influence. They would need to provide support for their assertions from states where marijuana has already been legalized.

Let’s focus, though, on why even those who support the legalization of marijuana are split over this vote. Consider the first portion of the long legal title of the amendment: “An amendment to the Arkansas Constitution authorizing possession and use of cannabis (i.e., marijuana) by adults, but acknowledging that possession and sale of cannabis remain illegal under federal law; authorizing licensed adult use dispensaries to sell adult use cannabis produced by licensed medical and adult use cultivation facilities . . . .” (That is about 10% of the title.) So, under the new law, an adult in Arkansas could legally possess one ounce of marijuana for non-medical purposes, recognizing that the drug is still illegal under federal law. Users cannot grow marijuana for their own use. Medical marijuana users can use the recreational allowance and medical marijuana would no longer be taxed, but non-medical would.

Students can be pushed to see the limitations of what seemed like a “no-brainer” in voting for recreational marijuana.

  • Users can only have a small amount in their possession at any time.
  • Recreational marijuana will be taxed.
  • Users cannot grow their own marijuana.
  • Marijuana retailers will be limited.
  • Small growers will have a hard time competing with large dispensaries due to planting restrictions.
  • The price of marijuana will go up.

Some students may find the restrictions imposed on small marijuana businesses appealing because it will lessen the amount of low-quality marijuana in the market. This amendment also makes it more difficult for people under the legal age to get marijuana due to the tight dispensary restrictions. These restrictions have unfair implications for small businesses and marijuana users, which does not reflect the changes that Arkansas voters desired when they called for a recreational marijuana amendment. This all began as a grassroots effort by voters, but in the hands of the state legislature, the amendment has failed its voting population.

Now Arkansas voters face a quandary: Vote for an amendment that would allow them to buy marijuana according to very strict guidelines rather than completely miss the opportunity to legalize recreational marijuana or hope to pass a more fair amendment in the future. This example shows why it is important for students to understand and consider the implications of their arguments. A good argument in theory can have adverse effects when applied to a real-life situation.

"Vote"  by Alexander Beeby is licensed under CC BY 2.0


About the Author
Donna Haisty Winchell directed the first-year writing program and codirected Digital Portfolio Institutes at Clemson University before her retirement in 2008. She edited several freshman writing anthologies and continues to write about argumentative writing and about fiction by African-American women. She is the author of The Elements of Argument and The Structure of Argument with Annette T. Rottenberg.