Deep dive into Cannabis Culture

Students learn about the many ways fast-growing sector influences culture and individuals

May 30, 2017

Her Maymester class on Cannabis Culture is intensive and challenging, but Nola Leggere looks forward to each session. While it’s well known that Colorado has boomed economically since becoming the nation’s first state to legalize recreational pot four years ago, the class has opened her eyes to “a lot of issues” she hadn’t previously considered.

A highlight of the course, taught by Marty Otañez, PhD, associate professor of anthropology, is the contact students get with policymakers, entrepreneurs, cannabis workers and residents of gentrifying neighborhoods – all players in the social, legal, medical and economic fabric of the cannabis sector.

Cannabis Culture Maymester field trip CU Denver
Students in the Cannabis Culture course meet with professionals in all sectors of the cannabis industry. Here, the class met with attorneys at Vicente Sederberg law firm in Denver. Pictured from left are Associate Professor Marty Otañez, student Nola Leggere and Jordan Wellington, a lawyer at Vicente Sederberg. Photos by Brian Young.

Leggere, an anthropology major at CU Denver, said the class has exposed her to the human realities of cannabis legalization, much more so than anything she’s read in the media. “We hear so much about how great marijuana is for the economy and how it’s going to bring in tourism, but we tend not to focus on the human side of it,” she said. “That’s the part I wanted to focus on – how the marijuana industry is affecting people on a personal level.”

The 16 students in the undergraduate Maymester class have gone on several field trips and will produce video stories about the growing sector’s consequences, including the impacts of state and federal policies, workplace conditions for cannabis employees, and the realities of escalating rents and home prices. The stories will be shared from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Thursday, June 1, at the International Church of Cannabis, 400 S. Logan St. in Denver. It is a non-consumption cannabis and alcohol event.

Epicenter of cannabis sector

“As anthropologists – whether students or practicing anthropologists – we’re trying to understand how culture influences cannabis and the cannabis sector, but also how the cannabis plant and the process of industry expansion influences culture,” Otañez said. “We’re in the epicenter of the cannabis sector globally, with Denver being the pioneer urban center where all of this is unfolding.”

Otañez started the Cannabis Culture class three years ago, seeing a demand among students for more information about the subject as well as a way to leverage the many research contacts he’s developed in the cannabis industry. In addition to his scholarly research, Otañez produces a cannabis-focused community TV program called Getting High on Anthropology on Comcast Cable Channel 57.

On a field trip to Vicente Sederberg LLC, a Denver-based national law firm specializing in cannabis law and policy, the students met with lawyer Jordan Wellington; Andrew Livingston, director of economics and research; and Genevieve Meehan, who works in the firm’s compliance department.

Maymester 2017 Spotlight: Cannabis Culture

A highlight of the course, taught by Marty Otañez, PhD, is the contact students get with policymakers, entrepreneurs, cannabis workers, and residents of gentrifying neighborhoods.

Posted by University of Colorado Denver on Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Topics covered during the 90-minute Q-and-A included the history of cannabis, health effects of its use, potential ramifications of the new presidential administration, evolving policies on social marijuana consumption, and the “corporatization” of the industry.

900 rabbit holes

Wellington explained how, by being in the right place at the right time, he was appointed as the sole staffer assigned to shepherd legislation relating to Amendment 64 through the Colorado General Assembly in 2013. “I was one of the point people that implemented cannabis legalization for Colorado on the policy side,” said Wellington, who later joined the law firm.

All three speakers are clearly passionate about their work and being on the ground floor of the sweeping ways in which marijuana legalization continues to affect culture, the economy and health. “It is a niche that overlaps on essentially all other areas of life,” Livingston said. “I’ve been hard-pressed to find specific issues that are not touched by cannabis.”

As a self-described “policy nerd,” Wellington said he’s intrigued by cannabis’s historical arc – from prohibited and stigmatized plant to regulated and thriving commodity. All of the policy questions that surround the emerging cannabis industry are endlessly fascinating, he noted.

Maymester course field trip to Denver law firm
Two of the speakers at the Maymester class’ visit to a Denver law firm are, from left, Andrew Livingston and Jordan Wellington.

“We’re not talking about regulating one thing. We’re talking about about agriculture, complex manufacturing, food production, analytical testing, and retail distribution of a controlled substance,” Wellington said. “From an intellectual perspective, it’s not like running down a rabbit hole, it’s like running down 900 rabbit holes at once.”

Maymester ‘a wonderful option’

Diving into those holes is made easier through an intensive approach such as a Maymester course, according to Leggere. “It’s very fast-paced and in-depth,” she said. “ … I personally think it’s a wonderful option and would recommend it.”

Leggere added that CU Denver’s urban location, as well as the faculty’s strong connections to the city, such as Otañez’s research contacts, give students an unsurpassed learning experience. “If I was going to a smaller school that specialized in liberal arts we would not have the same amount of access to resources,” she said. “At CU Denver, where there are so many tendrils reaching out to the city, we get so many resources to be able to fully understand a lot of issues.”