While future paths may not be clearly defined for every student graduating in the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy’s (UMSOP) Master of Science in Medical Cannabis Science and Therapeutics (MCST) due to the nature of the rapidly emerging industry, one thing is clear, according to the Class of 2022’s student leader, Codi Peterson, PharmD, MS ’22.
“We are trailblazers of a nascent industry,” said Peterson, president of the Medical Cannabis Student Association, speaking at the class’ graduation convocation May 18 at the Universities of Shady Grove (USG) in Rockville, Md. “Here we are. We did it together, bravely, proudly — on Zoom. We are the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy Medical Cannabis Science and Therapeutics Class of 2022. I can’t wait to see how we change the world.”
Family and friends of the 207 students — the program’s second graduating class — gathered to celebrate the diverse mix of health care professionals, researchers, entrepreneurs, cannabis industry experts, and public health advocates of the Class of 2022.
“As we’ve been reminded by the pandemic, we need to celebrate our victories when we can, because nothing is guaranteed,” said Peterson, who then took his classmates on a journey of reminiscence.
“I invite you to take a trip down memory lane with me to a simpler time, a time before masks, when you knew what your classmates looked like and you actually cared what your breath smelled like,” he said. “Back to a time when, when you went to the grocery store, you were confident there would be ample paper products, baby food, flour, and hand sanitizer. Back to a time where you didn’t think twice about shaking hands. But again, these are not those times. Things always change.”
Launched in August 2019, the program provides students with the knowledge and skills needed to support patients and the medical cannabis industry, add to existing research in the field, and develop well-informed medical cannabis policy. Based at USG, the two-year program is designed for any individual who has completed an undergraduate degree and is interested in pursuing a career in medical cannabis.
MCST is the first graduate program in the country dedicated to the study of medical cannabis. It aims to meet the needs of all individuals interested in advancing their knowledge about medical cannabis, including health care professionals such as physicians, nurses, and pharmacists; scientists and regulators; growers and dispensary owners; and policy and industry professionals. Online coursework is designed to accommodate students with or without a background in science or medicine. In-person symposia are typically held once each semester to provide students with opportunities to network with peers as well as meet and interact with experts in the science, therapeutics, and policy of medical cannabis.
Leah Sera, PharmD, MA, BCPS, program director, MCST, and associate professor, UMSOP, discussed the program’s young history and described the graduates as an embodiment of a dream fulfilled.
“Back in 2018, I was given the opportunity — thank you, Dean Eddington! — to imagine what a master’s program focused on medical cannabis could be,” Sera said, offering a shout-out to UMSOP Dean Natalie D. Eddington, PhD, FAAPS, FCP. “I had to imagine it, because at that time, there was no such program in existence that could inform my decisions about what our program objectives should be, what courses we should teach, and who our students should be.”
Sera said from the beginning she knew the program should welcome a student body diverse in academic and professional backgrounds, reflecting the diversity of the expanding medical cannabis science field. It was important to create a program rich in scientific and clinical coursework that would be accessible, yet challenging, to all students regardless of previous academic experience, she said.
“I look at this group of graduates and see pharmacists, nurses, scientists, attorneys, veterans, entrepreneurs, public health professionals, educators, advocates — all of whom are united in the ultimate goal of optimizing patient care by advancing the field of cannabis medicine,” Sera said. “To see you here is, for me, quite literally a dream come true.”
The field of medical cannabis continues to grow and evolve, and it needs individuals with expertise to push the industry forward, she continued. “With your passion and determination, you will improve the lives of patients through research, practice, education, and advocacy. Please keep in touch, keep blazing new trails, and keep inspiring others like you have inspired me,” Sera said.
The program graduated its first class of 132 students in May 2021, and they have gone on to expand their clinical practices, become entrepreneurs starting new business endeavors, begun jobs in dispensaries and testing facilities, gotten involved in local or state government, and pursued further education, including additional master’s degrees and PhDs.
Eddington described the class as trailblazers, leaders, innovators, risk takers, and change makers.
“As states have legalized medical cannabis, trailblazers like you have lined up to be at the forefront of this emerging industry by opening or working in dispensaries or welcoming patients into your medical practice,” she said.
Eddington said when the program was being developed, UMSOP leaders kept three things in mind: a goal to professionalize the face of the medical cannabis industry; a desire to remove the stigma long associated with cannabis; and the objective to produce a diverse and highly educated medical cannabis workforce to support the millions of patients who are turning to cannabis for relief from a host of symptoms associated with a wide range of diseases.
“Traditional educational programs for health care practitioners, analytical chemists, policymakers, and business and sales professionals have not typically included instruction on the science, policy, and therapeutics of medical cannabis,” Eddington said. “There is a tremendous need for quality medical cannabis education. The sky is the limit with your newfound knowledge.”
Sarah A. Chase, executive director of the Council for Federal Cannabis Regulation, provided keynote remarks to the graduates, underscoring the burgeoning opportunities for qualified graduates to continue the forward movement of this growing industry.
“You’re entering a world where there is no preconceived construct, no formality, no established convention, no dogma to tell you what to do … or to hold you back,” Chase said. “You are here to build a new industry. Your love of science, for discovery, for wonder, these are virtues, and you are free to allow them to be infused into everything you do.”
The medical cannabis science industry comes with its own high level of system barriers, she said, from prohibition to decades of political and cultural stigma, to vast hurdles of reform, regulation, and reparations.
“The task at hand is not any easy one, and you will certainly need the whole of your willing hearts and the most precise of your skillful hands,” Chase said. “Practice empathy and compassion in all your future endeavors. Have fun and bring joy to others, for it is your purpose to heal the people you impact along the way.”