On a brisk-but-sunny Monday morning in Boulder, students trudge slowly into sociology graduate instructor Alex Thompson's 9 a.m. class "Drugs in U.S. Society" carrying coffee, still trying to get into the weekday groove.
Thompson, who wears a black button-down shirt, dark jeans and black, thick-rimmed glasses, turns on some music while setting up his laptop and the projector screen. He begins his lecture, a continuation from a previous discussion of drug socialization.
"How many of you knew somebody who smoked marijuana for the first time and didn't get high?" he asks.
A dozen or so hands shoot up.
"You have to learn how to use it, right?" he says, and then asks the class to describe the process of using marijuana.
At 26, Thompson has quickly earned the respect of students on the Boulder campus with his first-hand experience in the marijuana industry. For his doctoral dissertation, Thompson is working in a Front Range-area medical marijuana bakery, and he uses medical marijuana to help treat his Crohn's disease, a type of inflammatory bowel disease.
The "Drugs in U.S. Society" course goes beyond pot, and forces students to consider various drug families and topics such as drug policy as it relates to incarceration, the criminal justice system, how norms around drugs have changed over time and the ways in which culture, at any given moment, affects the public's perception of drugs.
Through the class, Thompson wants his students to question the world around them.
"The message I continually try to give them is that our drug policies are not based on science, they aren't based on the pharmacology or the biology, they're based on social perception," he said. "And we tear that apart. Where did that come from? Why did we demonize Chinese immigrants and why did we attach that to heroin? How did that lead to heroin being a Schedule I substance? It's not just a class for talking about drugs and having fun doing it, it's as much a criminology or criminal justice course.
"I want them to leave understanding what's going on and at the very least, question the legal system, question our incarceration policies, ask your politicians or your local legislature why are we passing this bill?"
Analyzing 'everyday life'
An introductory sociology course in college piqued Thompson's interest in studying social interaction — how do people interact in a social setting? What are the right and wrong things to say? How are power dynamics formed in different settings?
While working on his master's degree at the University of Connecticut, Thompson was diagnosed with Crohn's disease and began attending support groups. He wrote his thesis on how people manage the stigma associated with a "bathroom disease, "and how they learn to talk about topics such as bowel movements.
When he came to CU in 2011 to begin work on his doctorate, Thompson began treating his Crohn's disease with medical marijuana.
The idea to study marijuana for his dissertation came next.
"It put me into remission for almost a year," he said. "I was off all my other medications, feeling fantastic and it just sort of sparked a real interest in the industry. The phrase (in sociology) is 'Study where you live,' not only geographically, but also in a more rhetorical sense in that study what you do, what you're passionate about, what you already know."
For research, he began working in a medical marijuana bakery — he can't say which one because he promised the owners and employees anonymity in his dissertation, which is standard practice in sociological research — and started thinking through how we got to the current moment in time in which marijuana is legal in Colorado.
His research, which is a work in progress, will discuss how shifts in the voter population led to marijuana's legalization, marijuana product development and workplace culture, challenges marijuana businesses are facing and the future of the industry.
Through his work at the bakery, Thompson feels firsthand any frustrations or triumphs his coworkers feel. His writing will include his own observations as well as formal and informal interviews.
Though some has been written about marijuana dispensaries in sociology, Thompson is on the forefront of work that looks at workplace culture and the manufacturing side of the business, said his advisor Patti Adler.
"(Thompson) is in a very good position to be witnessing these things happening firsthand, and particularly a small business like he's studying, to see how they're struggling to stay afloat, to deal with the pressures of rapidly increasing demand and an unbelievably high quality product in the baked goods and a very liminal legal state," she said.
"Always (sociologists) try to describe and analyze the practice of everyday life, of which (Thompson) is excellent, and how people perceive the factors they face and how they deal with them," Adler said. "The struggles. The joys. The challenges and from the liminality of the industry to the liminality of the politics, there's really a lot going on here."
Students learn from someone 'inside'
Back in the classroom, Thompson spends at least one day each semester showing his students his medical marijuana identification card and identification for work at the bakery as part of his lecture.
He opens up the class for questions.
Without fail, Thompson said he has to cut the students off because they are still asking questions at the end of the lecture.
More and more, the students don't feel pressure to keep quiet about marijuana culture or their own personal consumption of the drug or involvement in the industry, Thompson said.
Many of his students, who are experiencing a shift in what sociologists call the "moral compass" of marijuana as it becomes less stigmatized, say they benefit from learning from someone who has a deep understanding of the industry.
"Especially with all the stuff that's been happening with marijuana in our state, it's really cool to have someone who's inside who can tell us more about it all," said sophomore Sam Borchert.
Thompson agrees that his research gives him a unique teaching advantage, but said he also incorporates statistics, popular culture references and various points of view from academia.
The class presents students with all the facts about various drug families and drug culture to give them a chance to form their own opinions, and challenges them to think about how the media, advertising, political leaders and the criminal justice system may influence the public's view on various drugs.
"I try to help them through my experiences and the literature to personalize the drug world so it's not just these demonizing images that they still get from D.A.R.E or New D.A.R.E or whatever program they're in," Thompson said.
"It's much more about these are just people and they've been through different things than you have and different stressors and made different choices but that doesn't make them worse people, just different, so let's try to understand them."
Contact Camera Staff Writer Sarah Kuta at 303-473-1106 or email@example.com