Foundations for the Future: The University of Rhode Island’s Cannabis Education Program

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Columns | <b>Cannabis Voices</b>

The continued expansion of the cannabis industry, particularly in the new recreational market in Rhode Island, is simultaneously increasing the opportunities for professions as well. One advantage here is education; formal training from experts provides an edge for those looking to lead and innovate in their field. In response to this need, the University of Rhode Island (URI) offers an Undergraduate Certificate in Cannabis Studies, a minor in cannabis studies, an upcoming Graduate Certificate in Cannabis Sciences, and more in order to evolve the way students learn and are prepared for the wide-ranging opportunities in the cannabis industry. In this interview, Program Director Stephanie Forschner-Dancause, PhD, shares insights into the curriculum of URI’s cannabis courses as they prepare students to ensure the industry's future is credible and grounded in evidence-based practices.

Can you tell us about your background? How did you become the program director for the University of Rhode Island’s cannabis studies programs?

Stephanie Forschner-Dancause: My love of chemistry and the natural world have intertwined since my days as an undergraduate. I was studying abroad in Australia when I heard a talk by a Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) scientist on the search for new drug compounds from marine organisms. I was captivated by the interplay between compounds produced by nature and our ability to harness them for human health. I went on to get my PhD in pharmaceutical sciences with a focus in natural product chemistry. My scientific interests focus on the discovery of natural products with biological activities capable of modulating human health and environmental interactions. I am currently an associate teaching professor in the Department of Biomedical and Pharmaceutical Sciences at URI’s College of Pharmacy, director of the cannabis programs, and director of the BS in pharmaceutical sciences.

When our department began thinking about starting a program in cannabis studies, I jumped at the chance to lead it. Nature is a remarkable chemist and cannabis is a prime example. The program brings together all my passions: exploring natural product chemistry, advancing health, and guiding future leaders and innovators. I hope to inspire others as that scientist did for me so many years ago.

What led to the starting of the programs, how have they evolved, and what makes them unique?

Forschner-Dancause: I am lucky to be surrounded by many world class experts in natural product chemistry and nutraceutical formulation research. Several of these individuals had been contacted by the local cannabis industry for very similar questions and concerns. We saw a need within the industry and had the expertise to address it. With that in mind, we first developed the Undergraduate Certificate in Cannabis Studies which launched in Fall 2020. We settled on an undergraduate certificate because several of the people we talked to didn’t have education in chemistry or pharmacology. They were remarkable people coming from other businesses or trades who had a deep desire to further their knowledge and advance the industry for their customers. We built the program from the ground up focusing on evidence-based research to help our students reach their goals and to assist their customers safely, reliably, and ethically.

The certificate is offered completely online, asynchronously, to meet the demanding schedule of working professionals. However, our students are not alone in their studies. The professors and teaching assistants are scientist right here at URI who are always happy to take an email, phone call, or video call from our students. We have also been able to foster a lively discussion board within the courses, which connects our students allowing for networking, various perspectives, and innovated ideas.

At the request of our students, we have grown the programs to include a minor in cannabis studies for our campus-based students and are preparing to launch a new Graduate Certificate in Cannabis Sciences this summer. In the future, students will be able to combine the graduate certificate with additional courses to complete a Professional Science Masters, which will combine cannabis science with business leadership. All courses in the graduate certificate will be taught by not only URI scientists, but also cannabis industry leaders. It will be a unique, industry-guided degree which will prepare our students to be leaders and innovators in the cannabis industry.


Can you tell us more about the courses and instructors?

Forschner-Dancause: We currently have eight cannabis specific courses within the programs.

The four undergraduate courses are Foundations in Cannabis Studies, Cannabis Chemistry and Pharmacognosy, Cannabis Therapeutics, and Cannabis Product Development. These courses cover topics from history, culture, and regulations to pharmacology, natural product chemistry, formulation, and analysis. In addition to myself, classes are taught by College of Pharmacy professors Drs. Navindra Seeram and Saleh Allababidi. Dr. Seeram, Professor and Chair of the Biomedical and Pharmaceutical Sciences Department, is a world-renowned expert in medicinal plants and functional foods. Dr. Allababidi, associate teaching professor, is an expert in pharmaceutical and nutraceutical formulation.

The four graduate courses are Cannabinoid Pharmacology, Cannabis Extraction Processes and Laboratory Testing, Formulation and Manufacturing of Cannabis Products, and Analytical and Bioanalytical Techniques in Cannabis Science. These courses provide students with the knowledge and skills required for the research and development of safe, reliable, and functional cannabis products. They are designed to investigate research questions and solve operational challenges in cannabis pharmacology, pharmaceutics, manufacturing, and analytical/bioanalytical method development and validation. In addition to the URI faculty, several industry leaders with adjunct faculty appointments have contributed to the development and instruction of the courses including Drs. Riley Kirk and Margaret Teasdale. Dr. Kirk is a cannabis research scientist, educator on social media under the username Cannabichem, and co-founder of the non-profit Network of Applied Pharmacognosy. Dr. Teasdale is the Chief Scientific Officer (CSO) for a cannabis testing laboratory and has decades of experience in analytical/bioanalytical chemistry within the fields of clinical diagnostics and natural products. 

What are some challenges cannabis education faces and how are you overcoming them?

Forschner-Dancause: The biggest challenge in cannabis education is the federal classification of cannabis as a Schedule I drug. Because of this, our students do not have any hands-on experience with the plant itself. However, the tools used in cannabis extraction, purification, and analysis have been used for decades in other medicinal plants. We use these plants as surrogates to demonstrate the processes and techniques. In addition, we have researchers and collaborators researching cannabidiol (CBD) and other minor cannabinoids whose data sets we can utilize, giving students real-world experience in chemical analysis.

For online students, the biggest challenge is providing real world learning experience when they can’t step foot in a lab. We address this by calling to attention the everyday activities we do which mimic techniques used in the industry. For example, investigating how the time, temperature, and ground size in brewing coffee can affect the compounds extracted and thus the flavor, or how letting a stew rest in the refrigerator can result in a degreasing process like the dewaxing process more commonly called “winterization” in the industry. To further overcome the challenge, a video series of “CannabiLabs” were created which take the students into the lab to see every step of the techniques. Taking it to the next level, a new immersive learning virtual reality tool developed within the College of Pharmacy will soon be introduced to provide virtual training in the use of high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC).

What opportunities and occupations are your students prepared for when they graduate? Are there any success stories that stand out?

Forschner-Dancause: The breadth of areas covered by the program and opportunity available is matched by the diversity of students who complete it. We have students coming from the industry who are looking for a more scientific understanding, students coming from clinical professions wanting to better advise their patients, students who are caregivers or medical cannabis users themselves, and students just starting their exploration of the industry. The skills gained can be applied to many opportunities in the cannabis industry including careers in extraction, processing, product development, manufacturing, quality control, compliance, and laboratory testing. The knowledge gained will also provide opportunities in wholesale and retail sales as well as to policy makers, entrepreneurs, investors, educators, and clinicians to further their own professional development.

We are so proud of our students as they challenge stigma and bring scientific rigor to their careers. We have run into past students at various expos and conferences, including at the fall Cannabis Science Conference where I reconnected with a student who has developed their own line of products. A past student was even scooped up by a multi-state operator (MSO) halfway through the program and flown across the country to begin hands-on training. In addition to our students, we often hear back from industry leaders commenting on the strength of our students. Seeing our students succeed is the ultimate goal.

How in-demand are cannabis education and careers?

Forschner-Dancause: Cannabis careers are experiencing increasing demand, especially in regions where new medical and adult-use markets are opening. With the need to optimize processes and comply with increasing regulations, there has been a growing necessity for professionals with expertise in various aspects of the industry including extraction, development, manufacturing, regulatory compliance, sales, and analysis. Our programs were designed to meet this demand and provide individuals with the knowledge and skills needed to not only succeed in the industry, but also help push it forward.

Cannabis education is in high demand and multifaceted. I’ve spoken with many different stakeholders from lab directors and dispensary managers to health care providers, and our older adult population. What I hear repeatedly is that there is not enough credible education. We are working to develop educational campaigns and programs for all these stakeholders whether it’s public facing information for consumers, education for clinicians, or technical training to cannabis professionals to ensure the production of safe, reliable products, and the dissemination of evidence-based information.

Where do you see the cannabis industry headed in Rhode Island and the nation in the year 2024?

Forschner-Dancause: 2024 is going to be an exciting year for the cannabis industry in Rhode Island (RI). While the adult-use legislation was passed in 2022, the legislation left the finer details up to the newly formed Cannabis Control Commission who is just beginning the work. Expanded markets and new license types will undoubtedly bring new energy and innovation to the RI cannabis industry. There is a conscious effort to expand in a safe, equitable, and sustainable way.

For the nation, 2024 will be an interesting year as the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) decides whether cannabis should be rescheduled.