What comes to mind when you hear the word “drug”?

Do you imagine substances like cocaine or meth being smoked in a poorly lit room? Do you imagine shady backroom deals where copious amounts of cash are exchanged for unlabeled packages?

Do you think of states like Colorado or Oregon who have become well known for legalizing marijuana?

Do you picture a medicine cabinet with random boxes of cold meds and a bottle or two of aspirin?

Do you consider if the occasional morning latte or glass of wine with dinner counts as a drug?

As often as I joke about my own “caffeine addiction” that I supplement with oversized cups of coffee or chai several times a day, it is far from the first image I associate with drugs. And yet, by definition, caffeine is a drug in that it is “intended to affect the structure or function of the body” and can create a “marked change in consciousness”.

For such a small word, the term”drug” is embedded with complex ideas, beliefs, and values that can vary from person to person. When considering thoughts on drugs in historical, social, political, and economic contexts, the issues becomes even less clear.

In my final semester of college, I have the opportunity to be part of an immersive study program investigating questions of race, class, gender and sexuality through a lens of drugs in American culture.

Growing up in a small-town-America, I watched documentaries about the dangers of meth in elementary school–an attempt by the town to target a drug considered a “primary drug threat” by the US Department of Justice in 2003. I listened to cynical jokes from parents about students in the local high school getting high in the back of class, even if the teacher was in the room.

When my brother and I were in middle school, my parents decided to move to Denver in an effort to prevent us from ‘falling in with the wrong crowd’. They saw Denver as a place to keep my brother and I busy, fearing that boredom would lead to experimenting with drugs and alcohol in our spare time.

I spent middle and high school watching marijuana become increasingly visible and accepted throughout the state, particularly in the Denver-Boulder area. I played ‘dispensary-I-Spy’ on field trips, trying to pick out even the most subtle signs marking medical dispensaries. Post-legalization in Colorado, dispensaries became even more obvious, even advertising happy hours. Now you can search Thrillist for the “best dispensaries” in Denver and learn about the cost, variety, and quality that each store offers.

I used to assume that my understanding of drugs in the US was accurate, albeit very limited. I believed that people mixed up in using and dealing hard drugs were dangerous and not people I knew. I saw marijuana as something that smelled foul and was a medical resource for people who found some of the plant’s chemical effects helpful in dealing with pain or stress–a resource that students in high school and college also used when they had too much time on their hands.

I made naive and simplistic assumptions. This blog is a public journal where I plan to reflect on my beliefs and further investigate ideas presented about drugs in American culture through visiting speakers, films, and readings. If you have questions or comments, please join in the conversation!