Date of Award

Summer 2015

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Sociology/Criminal Justice

Committee Director

Mona J. E. Danner

Committee Member

Allison T. Chappell

Committee Member

John David Reitzel


Laws surrounding the possession, use, and distribution of marijuana have undergone many changes for over a century. Political pressures and social prejudices have most often been the cause of these changes, rather than scientific research or rational thinking. As a result, the law has sometimes lagged behind social practice as in the current case in much of the U.S., including Colorado. In such an environment, it often falls on a police officer's definition, interpretation, and reaction to the laws to determine the extent to which certain laws and sanctions are enforced. Drawing on the work of Weick (1976), this dissertation utilizes the theoretical framework of sensemaking to examine two research questions. First, what sense are police officers in Colorado making of new legalization of marijuana laws? Second, how are officers defining, interpreting, and reacting to marijuana laws in Colorado?

Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 22 Denver police officers. Findings suggest that the lack of bright line policies regarding marijuana enforcement play a role in officers making sense of the law in different ways. Officers' definition and interpretation of marijuana law seems to be founded upon their experiences, as well as the experiences of their peers. Several unintentional consequences of marijuana legalization were identified by officers, and appear to play a substantial role in the sensemaking process.

Theoretically, this research contends that the four key components of sensemaking (Weick 1976) (i.e., social process, ongoing process, reliant on extracted cues, and based off of plausibility rather than accuracy) are interwoven with the aspects of defining, interpreting, and reacting to laws. As such, a call exists for the elaboration or construction of a theory combining the intertwined elements of defining, interpreting, and reacting to organizational change with the interwoven elements of sensemaking.

Findings suggest several policy implications. The call for Colorado and all states that are considering legalization for recreational purposes is to create bright line policies in an effort to reduce confusion among officers. The construction of such policies will reduce the grey area in which officers operate thereby ensuring that users are treated fairly across all jurisdictions and states.