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An Unlikely Debate

By: Katherine Butler-Dines

December 3, 2015

I followed my new friend into the ornately decorated halls of the Dar al-Hadith Hassania. The walls were covered in zelij (tiles), and all the doors were carved from cedar wood. We passed through archways and around bubbling fountains. The whole building was precisely modeled after the famous ninth and tenth century madrasas (centers of Islamic learning). It certainly didn’t look like any university I had visited before, but once we entered a classroom everything was familiar.

One of the female students who I had recently befriended invited me to attend the English class debate on the legalization of marijuana.

In the classroom, students chatted in clumps, and others were deeply engrossed in reviewing notes. I was out of place, the only non-Muslim and the only woman with uncovered hair, but the students were welcoming. When they learned I was American, several asked me questions about pronouncing certain words. All these students were studying for their master’s degree in Islamic Studies at the most prestigious religious educational institute in Morocco. This English class was in addition to classes on Islamic jurisprudence, Qur'anic studies, Arabic, French, psychology, and history.

The class quickly settled down when the teacher arrived and the debate started. The students’ command of English was impressive and their arguments well thought out. The pro-legalization team concluded that the economic benefits to the state outweighed the health and social risks to the users. Just like excessive consumption of sugar and smoking cigarettes are not prohibited because they are unhealthy habits, marijuana cannot be outlawed because of some bad heath effects' especially when there are also medicinal and industrial uses for it. On the other hand, the opposing team said the risks outweighed the benefits: smoking any form of cannabis could lead to cancer, the death of brain cells, users becoming less motivated to work, and increased criminal activity. They concluded that the state must not value the economy over the health of society. The debate was reminiscent of my own experience debating the topic in my ethics class last semester at Georgetown. In the end the pro-legalization team won, and both sides agreed that legalizing the growth of the plant for industrial and medicinal uses was beneficial.

The students were incredibly interested in my own experiences of growing up in Colorado, the pot capital of America, and the benefits that my state has seen because of its choice to legalize. We laughed about stereotypical stoners and their portrayal in American cinema. These students, likely to become imams or professors of Islamic studies after they graduate, were open-minded and excited to debate a controversial topic. I never expected to hear a debate on the legalization of marijuana in Morocco, let alone at a state-run religious education center. But our discussion was powerful and reminded me what higher education and study abroad is really about: creating space to engage in dialogue with perspectives different than your own.

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An Unlikely Debate