Jenna Valleriani will be moderating the upcoming Lift Cannabis Forum in Toronto on July 20. We thought it would be a good time to catch up with Jenna and learn/share a little bit more about her background. Don't forget to get tickets for the forum here.
Can you give a brief academic background? What have you studied, and where did your interests lie?
When I started my masters, I was always interested in ideas around crime, punishment and drug policy, but I always had a special focus in gender. Once I took a Sociology of Addictions class with Professor Pat Erickson, I became 100% sure that drug policy was the area I was most interested in. It just really clicked with me - I found everything I was reading engaging and interesting.
My two broad areas of study are deviance and sociol-legal studies, as well as health/mental health. I've worked on a range of different projects including, marriage and monogamy among same sex and heterosexual couples, intimate partner violence among female inmates, youth at risk, normalization of cannabis use, Rob Ford and the construction of "addiction" in the media, school shootings, religion and the Canadian court system, and the transmission of gambling behaviours. Its a pretty wide umbrella.
Can you describe your current PhD program and what your research is about?
Sure. I am in a PhD program at the University of Toronto in Sociology, and am part of a Collaborative Program in Addiction Studies - which is a great partnership between the university and CAMH. My research is, really broadly, about the social movement around cannabis access. This includes the intersection between activists, entrepreneurs and an emerging new industry. I am focusing on how social movements affect and shape entrepreneurial activity, and how these are tightly bound by different political and cultural meanings. Interestingly enough, most of the past stuff I've read ignores how different histories and cultural variation can actually lead to really diverse entrepreneurial outcomes within the same movement. I think there's something really important here that can speak to what we are seeing in cities like Vancouver, versus place like Toronto.
What types of research methods have you engaged in?
I am completely of the mindset that you can read everything you want about dispensaries, but until you actually spend time in one you miss a lot of what actually happens on the day to day. So I started with an interest in a method called ethnography- which is when you go into the field you want to research and really just hang out and talk to people. It's really descriptive. I basically emailed every dispensary in the city of Toronto at the time - this was almost 3 years ago now - and only one agreed to come to the school to meet with me. So I started volunteering there once a week for about 5 months. I literally just shadowed the employees, and talked to patients in the lobby while they waited. I did a lot of hanging out and it was totally transparent I was a student researcher. After that, the owner asked if I would like to take on a working role doing intake and patient education, which I did for about a year. It was a really important experience, and a really great job, and I feel like I gained a deeper understanding of patient experiences and all the little nuances happening that were unseen or untold by most media stories. I started writing when I felt like everything was so confusing - even I was confused when I had all these resources at my disposal. I think all researchers should put in a bit of time understanding the world they want to get into - no one has any obligation to let you in.
My methods for my dissertation are in-depth qualitative interviews, and I love the context it gives to numbers. I've interviewed about 50-60 dispensary and LPs (both applicants and licensed) across BC and Ontario. I've had numerous really great discussions and they provide some invaluable insights into the industry as it currently stands. I've also got to visit about 20 dispensaries and a handful of LP facilities, so that has been pretty amazing for me. I was sent out to Vancouver for a month to do some work there, and will be going back in the next couple months to complete my data collection.
How did you come to choose this topic for your studies?
I started with a more general interest around youth cannabis dealers and the black market in the first year of my PhD studies, then I met a patient under the MMAR who opened my eyes to this really interesting and underground route of access he pursued to gain a MMAR license even though he had serious back pain from a car accident. This was almost 6 years ago now, and it still seemed a little more hidden. When I learned about the existence of dispensaries I was totally floored-- the existence of these quasi-legal medical dispensaries all over the country that were (mostly) untouched by police because they served legitimately sick patients- I knew I wanted this to be the focus of my own research. What's funny is the very first dispensary I set foot in was probably the type of dispensary that gives all of them a bad name, so my initial approach was more from a deviance lens, but once I got a better understanding of what most dispensaries were like, it shifted to a story about social movements and patient rights.
What do you hope to do once you finish your program?
It really depends on what opportunities are available when I finish my degree. I love teaching, and recently completed a program which allows me to also teach in other institutions aside from universities like prisons and rehabilitation centers, so I would like to explore that further. If there's a really great posting for an academic job in my area that's meaningful to me, then I will apply. I would also love to do a post-doctoral degree, and I would love the work CAR-BC does. New opportunities are opening up each day, particularly as the industry grows, so who knows what these prospects will look like in a year.
What are you personally hoping to get out of the Lift Cannabis Forum? What questions do you hope get answered?
I see this as an exciting opportunity to sit and work with some of the people I admire in my work. I have very big shoes to fill as the moderator of this forum so it's really challenging for me from a public speaking perspective. Aside from professional development, I'm excited for a conversation to happen with many experts in different areas of the cannabis industry. It's hard to sometimes acknowledge, for example, that Health Canada also has a tough job, that dispensaries have a really important history to access and patient care, or that LPs are not the bad guys, but are working within really restrictive regulations. So, I see collaborative conversations as an opportunity to get all these voices and perspectives into one room and talk about how we can create solutions and work with those important regulating bodies - like Health Canada or the CPSO - to move forward. I'm excited to draw out some really important and current discussions around what's happening because things are moving at lightening speed. I feel like if everyone acknowledges we all have this broader goal of increasing patient access and care, we can work together on the finer details, which will get us a lot further than multiple groups doing it themselves.