U.S. Cannabis Academic Programs: A Conversation with Two Universities Leading the Way

March 6, 2020

In this installment of “Cannabis Crossroads,” we take a closer look at two universities that pioneered exciting, new cannabis academic programs. I interviewed two visionaries: Professor Mark Paulsen from the Department of Chemistry at Northern Michigan University (NMU) and Professor Leah Sera, PharmD, MA, BCPS, the Program Director for the Master of Science in Medical Cannabis Science and Therapeutics at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy.

Readers may have seen press releases related to your newly created academic cannabis program. Can you please share more details about your program and how it was started?
Mark Paulsen: Our Medicinal Plant Chemistry program is in its third year of full operation. We will graduate our first cohort in May 2020. The program consists of a mix of chemistry and botany core courses. The chemistry emphasis is on analytical chemistry and plant biochemistry. Any particular student can then combine the core courses with either our entrepreneurial track or our bioanalytical track. In the entrepreneurial track, students combine the science core with marketing, accounting, finance, and management courses. The bioanalytical track is a pure science degree with emphasis on genetics, molecular biology, and chemical instrumentation. All students in the program—regardless of track—complete a senior project in which they grow, harvest, process, and analyze a plant of medicinal interest to answer their original research question. We also have a regular seminar series with faculty and outside speakers who can share information about the current state of the industry.      

The launch of the program occurred in response to our university’s call for new and innovative programs. We were also aware that Michigan law was changing with regards to safety and dosage testing of cannabis products for patients. In addition, we had faculty members interested in researching hemp and cannabis secondary metabolites. Those three factors came together as we submitted a request to offer the new major. We received some seed money from the university to acquire critical chemical instrumentation.

Leah Sera: We started this program to respond to an evolving and expanding medical cannabis industry. We saw the need for this industry to have an educated workforce. At the same time, several surveys had been published over the last several years, primarily of health professionals, that indicated a knowledge gap related to medical cannabis topics that we felt we could address through formal education.

What were some of the obstacles you faced in bringing this program to life? Did you face criticism or deal with the overarching stigma related to cannabis?

Paulsen: The actual launch of the program was relatively straight forward, the Provost at NMU and our university President were quite supportive, the board of trustees also strongly supported the new program. Certainly, there were and are some members of the university and community that were skeptical or concerned, but most of the feedback and response we have received has been positive. One of our goals is to place cannabis in the context of the wide array of plants that have been used medicinally. So, as we talk with people, we emphasize that the program is not only about cannabis but is intended to speak on medicinal plants more broadly. We feel that this broader scope helps minimize some of the concern. 

Sera: We faced surprisingly few obstacles in getting the program approved and launched it last August. For the most part, everyone who played a part in reviewing, approving, and implementing the program was curious, interested, and invested in making it successful. We’ve had an incredibly positive and robust response from people in the medical cannabis field and from prospective students.

What has been the response to your academic cannabis program? How many students were you anticipating and what does the enrollment look like now?

Paulsen: I looked back at our original program proposal and we predicted 60–80 students by year three. We are in year three with more than 300 majors and we will grow more next year as well.  We have not yet found a plateau. This very positive enrollment has been the greatest challenge over the past three years since launch. We have had to add more faculty more quickly than we envisioned; we have had to remodel existing laboratory space to accommodate more students during the week.  Just this last fall, we completed the conversion of ~4500 square feet of classroom space to the Shimadzu Medicinal Plant Science facility. This laboratory renovation happened sooner than originally planned to accommodate our rapid growth. The university administration has been very supportive, which has been essential because of the large amount of resources we have needed to get the program to this point.  

Sera: Initially, we expected to enroll 50 students in the inaugural class. However, we had more than 500 applicants that applied in the six weeks between announcing the program and the start of the first semester. We increased the size of the first cohort to 150 students.