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Looking at Cannabis Through a Cultural Lens

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Breanna Merritt/TSPR file photo
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Western Illinois University offers a minor in cannabis that does not focus on production of the crop. But that program has now produced something – its first graduate.

Alison Coats said one of her professors brought the Cannabis & Culture program to her attention at a time when Coats was trying to decide on her minor.

The Cultural Anthropology major said the new program seemed like a good fit.

“Culture is something I’m immensely interested in,” Coats said, adding that her sister works in the cannabis industry. “I was like, cannabis with culture mixed together? This sounded like something I would absolutely love.”

Coats said the courses in the minor taught her about the medical aspects of cannabis, religious uses of the crop, socioeconomic factors related to its usage, and more.

“This minor made me have a way more open mind. I had viewpoints going into this about cannabis that were not negative, but it opened my eyes tremendously. It’s just one of those eye-opening experiences that changes you, honestly,” Coats said.

Coats said she plans to pursue a master’s degree, though she doesn't yet know what school she might attend.

Creation of the Cannabis & Culture Minor

Sarah Haynes and Heather McIlvaine-Newsad, both professors of Anthropology at WIU, worked together to develop the program.

Haynes said the idea for the minor came about as Illinois lawmakers moved to legalize adult use of cannabis in the state beginning January 1, 2020.

“This came out of something unique that Illinois did when they put together this legislation, and that was allowing certain past cannabis crimes to be expunged from the records of certain individuals.  We saw this as a chance to talk about the social justice issues related to cannabis use,” Haynes said.

She said students who know more about the cultural aspects of cannabis are better prepared for cannabis-related jobs, whether at a dispensary or with a social justice or political advocacy organization.

She said it would be “wonderful” to offer Cannabis & Culture as a major, but first they want to spend a few years gauging interest in the program.

McIlvaine-Newsad said the minor is designed to give students a well-rounded education about cannabis.

“There are multiple minors (at schools in the U.S.) that deal with cannabis production but they don’t deal with the interface between the plant and the people. And that’s what this minor does,” McIlvaine-Newsad said.

“It looks at all of the different kinds of variables that influence why people use or don’t use or how they use or don’t use cannabis.”

Like Haynes, McIlvaine-Newsad said the social justice aspect of the minor is especially important because anti-marijuana laws of the past were enforced mostly heavily on non-white populations.

“(We’re addressing) all different kinds of avenues that I think other programs don’t address in the same way that our program does,” she said.

Planning is underway for a Study Abroad trip to Amsterdam next spring to provide students with a perspective of how cannabis has been dealt with in another country. The Netherlands decriminalized marijuana decades ago.

Western also offers another cannabis-related minor; it’s in cannabis production. That School of Agriculture oversees that program.

Tri States Public Radio produced this story.  TSPR relies on financial support from our readers and listeners in order to provide coverage of the issues that matter to west central Illinois, southeast Iowa, and northeast Missouri. As someone who values the content created by TSPR's news department please consider making a financial contribution.