The University of Maryland School of Pharmacy is offering training to prepare prospective workers for the medical marijuana industry.
The move puts the Baltimore school in league with a few other universities, including the pharmacology department at the University of Vermont College of Medicine, seeking to bring educational standards to a growing national industry that grapples with evolving science and uncertain legal standing.
"We wanted to be there as a resource," said Magaly Rodriguez de Bittner, a pharmacy professor and executive director of the school's Center for Innovative Pharmacy Solutions, which has begun signing up potential workers for training.
"If you're going to be dispensing," she said, "let's make sure your staff is trained in best practices to do it safely and effectively."
The pharmacy school will offer classes through its online platform toward certifications required under the state's medical marijuana law for those involved in the business. It's partnering with the advocacy group Americans for Safe Access on the certification program. That organization will provide the instructors and the curriculum, which the school vetted and adjusted.
Training doesn't mean an endorsement of using marijuana by the school, a well regarded institution founded in 1841, Rodriguez de Bittner said. Medical marijuana is not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
The training is consistent with the school's mission to provide education to health care providers, even if the science and government regulation has yet to catch up with demand, she said.
Few universities even support research into medical uses for cannabis, largely because accessing the plant is restricted by federal law that categorizes it the same as heroin and LSD. And though Maryland, 28 other states and Washington, D.C., have made medical marijuana legal, the administration of President Donald Trump has signaled it could increase enforcement efforts.
Some large health systems in Maryland are concerned enough to ask their doctors not to recommend the drug, including LifeBridge Health and MedStar Health. Johns Hopkins Medicine and the University of Maryland Medical System are formulating policies.
Maryland's medical marijuana rules don't obligate doctors to get specific training before prescribing cannabis, but like other states it does require growers, processors, dispensaries and laboratories to be "certified," said Patrick Jameson, executive director of the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission.
The burden will be on businesses to ensure there is training relevant to a person's position, and there will be inspections, he said. The focus will be on safety, security and record keeping, but workers in each type of operation have more specific requirements.
"There are numerous training requirements for those people working in the industry," Jameson said. "Grower agents, processor agents and dispensary agents have specific training requirements" listed instate law, he said. "Dispensary agents have even more requirements."
The commission doesn't endorse any particular certification program, though the agency website for a time included a link to one but subsequently removed it.
The pharmacy school's partnership with Americans for Safe Access gives the nonprofit advocacy group "immediate legitimacy" for its courses, said Shad Ewart, a professor at Anne Arundel Community College, who teaches a course about the marijuana industry for credit but not yet industry certification.
He said the school also benefits because officials there had to do little leg work in developing a curriculum that could have taken months or years to produce on their own. (University officials said they reviewed the content and made it conform to educational norms.)
Still, Ewart understands many colleges and universities don't want to jeopardize federal funding for research, student loans or other programs by wading into the medical marijuana arena. He said there was a need, and in his case, demand particularly from students who wanted to launch their own businesses. He said he steers students to focus on ancillary operations such as security, marketing, accounting and retail.
"If the legislation says you must have fencing with video surveillance, well that's good for the fencing and video industries," he said.
Jahan Marcu, chief science officer for Americans for Safe Access, said the group has been offering training since 2002 when there were approximately 11 dispensaries around the country. Instruction initially focused only on "survival," which meant how to handle law enforcement.
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Now that there are several thousand businesses, the training has evolved to match what's required by states that allow medical marijuana for each type of operation from growing and processing to retailing and laboratory testing, he said. Courses offer instruction about laws and regulations; the latest evidence on uses for medical marijuana; plant and product consistency; pesticides; sanitation; operating procedures; labeling, inventory control and record keeping; and other relevant information.
On the Maryland site, 30-hour certification courses are being offered for $450 to $750.
Marcu said his group is not the largest marijuana educator, though it's not clear anyone is keeping track. Among others offering instruction are Cannabis Training Institute, THC University and Green Cultured. In addition to such new "universities" dedicated to medical marijuana certification, there are some medical societies and health departments offering training.
The university affiliation, Marcu hopes, will bring some accountability and possibly standards that others could adopt.
Rodriguez de Bittner said since launch of the training site, there has been interest from potential workers in Maryland, West Virginia, California and Washington, D.C.
"There is so much out there," she said. "We're trying to partner and provide courses based on the best evidence — as it develops."