Cannabis studies minor offers social justice perspective

Growing up in Detroit, Michigan, Shay Finn, a junior at DePaul, said she saw the legalization of cannabis in 2018 and quickly became interested in the plant. 

Her passion for it though, even driving her goals to work in the cannabis industry after college, lies less in the plant itself and more in the activism behind it. Finn is now pairing her digital marketing major with a minor in cannabis studies, a new program introduced in fall quarter 2022.

DePaul offers a cannabis studies minor as a multidisciplinary program with classes across multiple colleges, including the Driehaus College of Business and the College of Science and Health. The minor requires four core credits, either Cannabis and Society I or Introduction to Cannabis Studies, and 16 elective credits. 

“The stigma around cannabis is something that I’ve always wanted to fight,” Finn said. “When I got the opportunity to explore this program at DePaul, it was a way to educate myself about cannabis. I can advocate for it with a more educated and understanding manner about the industry and history of its stigma.” 

Donald Opitz, associate professor and director of cannabis studies in the School of Continuing and Professional Studies (SCPS) originated the idea for the cannabis studies program during a leadership retreat for SCPS in the summer of 2019. He was inspired by the legalization of recreational cannabis for adults in Illinois and saw it as an opportunity for an exciting initiative at DePaul.

“We wanted to emphasize questions of social justice across multiple fields,” Opitz said. “We wanted to prepare students not just to work in the cannabis business but also inform them across majors about the sociological and political issues that have long surrounded this topic.”

The minor now has 14 faculty members teaching courses for it and nine students, including Finn, enrolled in the program, according to Opitz.

When discussing her minor with students outside of the program though, Finn said she receives mixed reactions. In her experience, some students are hesitant about the topic and idea of drug use and do not know that the minor focuses on the social justice surrounding cannabis. 

“[SCPS] is expected to have credentials and programs that are responsive to trends in the work and industries outside of academia,” Opitz said. “I pitched the idea and asked what it would be like for DePaul to create a marketable credential for something like cannabis studies. People who heard that suggestion, which I really meant as a hypothetical, reacted with humor, surprise and also with interest.” 

Finn said many students in the cannabis studies classes seem to be excited to learn more about the unique topics presented in these classes. 

“There can be a misunderstanding and misconception about what the minor is,” Finn said. “People don’t realize that the program pushes social justice because it’s not just the drug you’re studying. You’re studying its effects and repercussions on history and communities. In these classes, it’s all people that are eager to dive into and discover everything the program has to offer.”

Senior Jonah Jardiel is not minoring in cannabis studies but is taking four courses this quarter in the program. He learned about the minor while looking for classes to take for elective credit and has always been interested in learning about cannabis. 

“There is so much potential in every component of the [cannabis] plant,” Jardiel said. “There’s a lot of social and racial injustice in the history of the plant and its legalization so I wanted to expand my own knowledge about it.”

Cannabis studies is centered on the social justice impact of cannabis’ legalization and decriminalization. Opitz said this focus also allows the program to work within DePaul’s Vincentian mission, which helped ease concerns from university leadership about implementing the minor due to the substance concerns.

“Our interest and DePaul’s leadership interests were both on social justice,” Opitz said. “Because we were in agreement from the beginning, we’ve gotten a lot of support from the university for this program.”

The legalization of cannabis for adults over the age of 21 in Illinois went into effect on Jan. 1, 2020 yet the state has the third-highest racial disparity in arrests for cannabis possession. In Cook County, Black people are 10 times more likely than white people to be arrested for cannabis, according to a 2018 study from the American Civil Liberties Union.  

“A lot of the negative connotations surrounding cannabis stem from white supremacy and racism in this country,” Jardiel said. “It’s crazy for me to see the amount of ignorance people still have about cannabis today in 2023 like what it is and why we view it so negatively.” 

Finn is interested in the sustainability of cannabis which the openness of the minor program allows her to explore. For her minor, she is pursuing an independent study to analyze the sustainability efforts in cannabis from the agricultural and business sides of the industry.

“There is so much to discover and such limited research so it’s all very exciting,” Finn said. “This is an up and coming industry with so many different avenues for possible careers and growth.”

The cannabis studies program hopes to introduce certifications into its coursework on topics like the legality, business management and medical research of cannabis. This would allow anyone within or outside the DePaul community interested in cannabis studies to receive training in more specialized areas. More classes are also being considered for the minor to cover a wider array of topics about cannabis.

Opitz hopes to eventually consider turning cannabis studies into a major offered at the university that would potentially study other drug and substance uses in society. 

“A study of cannabis is relevant to any and all majors,” Opitz said. “The lessons that students walk away with in these classes are transferable because they’re intertwined with so many other fields like history, environmental justice, medical processes and more. Someone that takes a course in cannabis studies is going to get a broad education in the issues embedded in our society.”