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Sociology seminar explores U.S. drug policy through marijuana legalization debate

Coursework includes NJ resident survey ahead of public vote
By
Adam Grybowski
09/30/2020

A special topics course for undergraduates at Rider University this fall is exploring the nation's drug policy through the lens of New Jersey’s efforts to legalize cannabis. 

As part of the course, "Reefer Madness: From Panic to Profit," students will conduct a study that examines the perspective of New Jersey residents on legalizing the substance, with a particular focus on evaluating support for using a legal cannabis industry to advance social equity aims.

This November, on Election Day, New Jersey residents will vote on a constitutional amendment to legalize marijuana. Four other states will also vote on adopting either new medical or recreational cannabis laws this year.

“New Jersey is at an incredibly consequential juncture in its drug policy history, one which will inevitably shape the social and legal landscape of the state for decades to come,” says Dr. Sarah Trocchio, an assistant professor in Rider’s Department of Sociology and Criminology who is teaching the course. “It is my hope that these emerging professionals will be equipped to engage in meaningful dialogue and decision-making about what the future policy landscape can and should look like.”

The survey is open to all New Jersey residents through Nov. 3. Students plan to prepare a report based on their findings and recommendations to state lawmakers and will present them at a virtual event on Dec. 2. The event is open to the public.

“I took this class to acquire a knowledge of the sociological aspect of the cannabis industry,” says Cameron Kunkle, a junior who is double majoring in criminology and sociology and minoring in psychology. “So far, this experience has been quite fascinating, and we have learned much about the racial and ethnic disparities that have transpired throughout history.”

While marijuana remains illegal nationally, 33 states have legalized medical cannabis, with 11 of them legalizing cannabis for recreational use among adults. The prospect of legalizing marijuana raises complicated issues, such as how to treat individuals with past records of marijuana possession. To help students gain a greater understanding of these issues, they will work directly with industry insiders on semester-long projects that focus on their areas of expertise, such as public health and social equity.

Mentors include Dr. Marion McNabb, the president of the nonprofit Cannabis Center of Excellence; Marshall Ogen '92, the vice president of business strategy for CannabisBPO; and Shekia Scott, the former director of equity programming and outreach at the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission.

"With years of hands-on experience working and defining equity in an already legalized state,” Scott says, “I will mentor and partner with students to understand how to center reparative justice and equity for those not only harmed but continuously criminalized by the War on Drugs, marijuana prohibition, arrests and incarceration."

McNabb and DJ Ritter, a data analyst from her nonprofit, have joined Trocchio as principal investigators on the survey project.

McNabb's organization aims to break the stigma and advance social justice in the cannabis industry. She has worked with other institutions of higher education to design and conduct cannabis educational sessions and courses.

"I'm excited to share these experiences with the students to demonstrate how cannabis research can inform education and advocacy efforts to help shape a new legal cannabis industry, focused on social justice, in New Jersey,” McNabb says.

Critics of the nation's drug policy have linked it to racial inequity, saying that it affects people and communities of color in ways that are unfair. Racial disparity in arrest rates between Black and white people have been documented nationally and in New Jersey. In 2016, data showed that Black people were three times on average more likely to be arrested than white people for marijuana possession in New Jersey, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Uniform Crime Reporting Program.

“I am very proud of Rider University for taking on critical conversations about cannabis through this seminar,” says Ogen, who studied political science at Rider and helps CannabisBPO in its mission to provide customer support to the growing cannabis industry.

“Rider University continues to make big strides in the area of diversity in both student population and curriculum,” Ogen continues. “As an alumnus, I could not be happier to assist our future leaders in discussing such an important and complex topic.”

For more details about the virtual Dec. 2 event and to register, please visit www.rider.edu/events/future-cannabis-new-jersey-virtual-event.