Addressing Controversial Topics: Marijuana
Let's be clear: the classroom is a complicated place. As a teacher, you may have to navigate sensitive topics that are potentially dangerous or disruptive.
In the page Inspiring Creativity in the Classroom, I brought up student projects on tattoos, nail polish, and marijuana legalization. But here, issues of tattoos and nail polish are not at all "sensitive." Some individuals may find tattoos "bad" or even "controversial" — but then, Facebook and Twitter are also "controversial" by this standard. I myself don't have any tattoos, but it's not my place to impose my preferences on the life of another student. I also don't use nail polish — why would I comment on whether my students choose to?
In this discussion, however, a paper on marijuana use or legalization seems to fall in a somewhat different category. As a teacher, I would never advocate the use of alcohol, pot, or cigarettes — all three have negative health consequences. As a person, I hate all three. But even here, it's not my place to judge a student who may or may not choose to toke. Yes, I will point out that driving while under the influence of alcohol or THC is both illegal and it gets people killed. I'll point out that federal law and campus policy still prohibit the use of cannabis on Heartland's campus, where I teach — this is important information for students who may be confused by the recent legalization of recreational marijuana by the state of Illinois. I may even bring up the studies that link marijuana use in adolescents to impaired cognitive function.
But a student who smokes pot outside class is not a threat to my classroom. On the other hand, a teacher who bars students from talking about real-life issues related to their long-term health and well-being would significantly damage the learning environment. If I close our classroom to these discussions, then students will carefully censor themselves from other topics that might "offend" me as a teacher. Or, in some cases, they may avoid bringing up issues of safety — for example, a female student who was date-raped while drinking at a party will feel extremely uncomfortable seeking help, and a teacher who's come out as "strongly anti-marijuana" likely wouldn't earn the trust of this student who needs support.
Personally, I don't drink — culturally, this is strange. Most Americans find alcohol an acceptable and sometimes an encouraged beverage. My attitude toward alcohol also shapes my thoughts on cannabis — I am personally against the use of THC. But I emphasize to my students that my personal choices on this topic are not an issue for their writing. There's a difference between the law, cultural norms, and each person's individual beliefs on this topic — and the only way to have open and honest discussions is to allow my students to be open and honest about their own views.
Heartland Is a Drug-Free Campus
As are many other colleges and universities. Acknowledging this does not mean we should prevent our students from writing about their thoughts.