March 13, 2002: On the Campus

Getting the real dope

One senior’s road to a thesis

By Liriel Higa ’02

Illustration by steven veach

Now that the second semester has started, the race to finish The Thesis has officially begun. Unlike other work, a student’s thesis topic is entirely up to his or her choosing, which allows us the greatest amount of academic freedom to date — but also requires the most self-discipline. Some students select topics by chance, while others are motivated by a long-standing passion or interest.

I stumbled onto my thesis topic in a class last spring. I heard a guest lecture by sociology professor Bruce Western on the sentencing disparities between the races with particular regard to drug crimes that inspired me to write about an aspect of the drug war. Over the summer, I read about different points of contention, such as the racialization of drug sentencing as epitomized by the 100-to-1 disparity between crack and powder cocaine judgments and recent state ballot initiatives aimed at liberalizing drug laws.

Unsure how I might create a manageable thesis topic from the morass of information I was accumulating, I turned to Stanley Katz of the Woodrow Wilson School, who advised me to focus on a single aspect – for example, a ballot initiative.

Professor Katz also provided recommendations for possible thesis advisers. Securing an adviser I felt I could work well with was a top priority, and it turned out to be quite an ordeal. After no fewer than 16 meetings and e-mail exchanges with various potential advisers, I settled on Gil Seinfeld, a fellow in the Law and Public Affairs Program. The only problem was that Gil was not on the faculty, and it is a requirement that one’s adviser be a professor. He had managed to secure a prestigious LAPA Fellowship, which are generally held by visiting tenured professors, but he was only a year out of law school. Professor Katz came to the rescue by agreeing to be my official adviser so that Gil could be my primary, unofficial one.

I ended up focusing on state propositions legalizing medical marijuana. I remembered the brouhaha when the first proposition passed in California in 1996, and I was curious as to what had happened since. Thanks to President Tilghman, I was able to speak with Peter Lewis ’55, one of the major backers of the medical marijuana and other drug reform initiatives. Mr. Lewis confirmed that the state propositions were part of a sustained effort to legalize medical marijuana on a national level. Due to the seeming intractability of the federal government’s stance, legalization proponents hope to start a movement by harnessing grassroots support. So far, so good: 73 percent of the public supports allowing doctors to prescribe medical marijuana, according to a Pew Research Center for People and the Press poll, and every state medical marijuana proposition has passed.

What complicates the issue is that medical marijuana is only quasilegal in the eight states that have passed propositions, as marijuana remains completely illegal under federal law. However, federal enforcement is inconsistent, due to lack of resources and the political sensitivity of the issue – no one wants to be accused of preventing cancer and AIDS patients from using a substance with the potential to reduce nausea, increase appetite, and prolong life. Gil encouraged me to read between the lines of the federal law: It turns out that a major justification for having the spottily enforced federal law is the fear that legalizing medical marijuana will send mixed messages, leading to increased recreational usage and eroding the no-tolerance stance against the drug. I am currently in the midst of trying to explain why the current policy is illogical and how it can be improved.

Despite the fact that most of my classmates assume that I am a pothead when they hear about my topic, researching my thesis is turning out to be the most fulfilling academic endeavor of my Princeton career. Now I just need to start writing.

Liriel Higa ’02 ( is not a pothead.

PAW ONLINE: Zach Pincus-Roth ’02 talks about juggling, love, and possibly stomach flu in On the Campus Online.


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