Long before the first buds flowered into Colorado’s new billion-dollar industry, various strains of communication – rhetoric, metaphors, various appeals for support – began wafting into wider society and helping to mainstream a once-taboo plant – marijuana.

Herring and Sullivan at CU Denver
Rodney Herring and Esther Sullivan, assistant professors of English and Sociology, respectively, are researching the language underpinnings of Colorado’s marijuana industry.

The purveyors of this persuasive communication – attorneys, venture capitalists and entrepreneurs – disseminated their messages with calculated purpose, or perhaps even unconsciously, during the buildup to Amendment 64, which legalized recreational cannabis in Colorado. Two assistant professors in the CU Denver College of Liberal Arts and Sciences – Rodney Herring, PhD, English, and Esther Sullivan, PhD, Sociology – are taking a deep, interdisciplinary dive into the language underpinnings of the state’s “green” industry.

Both professors are interested in neoliberalism, an economic philosophy that embraces market-based freedoms such as deregulation, free trade and privatization. They’ve targeted the thriving pot trade – which, in a matter of years, has switched from counterculture to mainstream – as a backdrop against which to ask questions about neoliberalism and its effects.

“When marijuana got legalized, it depended upon arguments that it should be regulated. And the industry is regulated. Heavily.” Herring said. “In our interviews, we anticipate hearing complaints about the burdens of regulation. The question is, how does this paradoxical relation to regulation make cannabis a business just like Starbucks or any other distributor of consumables?”

CU Denver professor Esther Sullivan
Assistant Professor Esther Sullivan speaks at the recent Creative Research Collaborative Fellows Talk at Inworks.

Herring and Sullivan plan to co-author papers from their research, which is just beginning, for journals in their respective fields. Herring specializes in the history of rhetoric, the rhetoric of economics in particular, and writing studies, while Sullivan studies poverty and inequality and how they relate to issues of governance and the built environment.

‘Narratives and messaging’

When an industry is in its early stages, financiers tend to create a pragmatic message, an over-arching narrative, to drive it forward, the researchers said. While making money is likely a main motivation, the entrepreneurs – in this case pot purveyors – may couch their messaging in broad-appeal aspects of the product, such as health benefits or even basic human rights to personal pleasure.

CRC Fellows

This article is the third in a four-part series about this year’s CRC Fellows. Look for the final story about the 2016-17 CRC researchers later this spring.

“Our primary interest is not only in narratives and messaging, but also how regulation is used as both a framework for setting up an industry and as a tool to professionalize the actors, to legitimize an industry,” Sullivan said. “We think that’s interesting, especially right now with nationwide debates over the role of regulation.”

Sullivan and Herring will interview at least a couple dozen professionals with strong ties to the cannabis industry to try to determine where the industry’s rhetoric originates. They hypothesize that these discourses – for instance the language of 2012’s Amendment 64, the appeal for regulation of “the growth, manufacture, and sale of marijuana in a system of licensed establishments overseen by state and local governments” – marked important steps toward legitimation. To what extent, they hope to answer, did the language used to promote legalization affect the nature of state regulation, and how has regulation provided cover not merely for the sales of recreational marijuana but also for overall mainstreaming of the industry?

While most research on marijuana is focused on its effects – on health, crime, youth, etc. – this project focuses on the messaging that’s rooted within a controversial enterprise. “It’s very different from the bulk of research in this area,” Sullivan said. “We’re looking at what’s embedded into an industry – how it was formed and how it’s regulated.”

CU Denver professor Rodney Herring
Assistant Professor Rodney Herring speaks at the recent CRC Fellows Talk at Inworks.

And just as the industry is exploding – eight states and Washington, D.C., have legalized recreational marijuana while 28 states have legalized medical marijuana – the new administration in Washington has raised concerns about the drug. Against that backdrop, a Cannabis Caucus has formed in Congress, including U.S. Rep. Jared Polis of Colorado, to hold forth on an industry that is creating jobs, providing tax money for schools and strengthening states’ economies.

‘At the turn’

“That’s something we want to talk with our subjects about: ‘What kinds of federal incursions are you anticipating?’” Herring said. “While regulation has been welcomed as a way of legitimizing the marijuana industry, it could also be viewed as an unwelcome threat. … On the national scale there continues to be momentum toward decriminalization of marijuana, and yet that may run up against federal pressure.”

Sullivan noted that Colorado, being the first state to set up a legalized recreational market for marijuana, is the ideal place to do this kind of research. “We’re really at the turn,” she said, because as more states legalize the drug they will be seeking answers to the same questions Colorado has already been asking. In another study, Sullivan is doing more qualitative data analysis related to marijuana; she is examining the trajectories of individuals who move for marijuana, whether they are seeking access to medical cannabis or market opportunities tied to the cannabis industry.

Because both Herring and Sullivan recognize great value in interdisciplinary research – “we just wondered how can we bring my rhetorical analysis and her qualitative research methods together,” Herring said – they are among eight CU Denver faculty members chosen as Creative Research Collaborative (CRC) Fellows this year.

CU in the City logo