The first 132 students were slated to graduate Friday evening with master’s degrees in medical cannabis science and therapeutics from the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy in Baltimore, a unique program in the nation aiming to standardize and professionalize the rapidly expanding industry.
The program launched two years ago after overcoming initial concerns about the legal status of marijuana at the federal level, and it quickly attracted dozens of professionals of all stripes who were working in the field or wanted to find a position.
“These folks are trailblazers,” Natalie D. Eddington, dean and professor of the pharmacy school, said ahead of a planned graduation ceremony Friday evening.
“They are the first in the nation to finish a medical cannabis master’s program,” she said. “They are going to have a significant impact on how medical cannabis is used. They are going to contribute to research, and I think, new laws that support the use of medical cannabis for patients with various health challenges.”
As Maryland’s medical cannabis industry was being debated and then launched in 2018, Eddington believed it was in line with the school’s mission to provide training to support research and policymaking, as well as guidance for patients.
There are other programs, largely through community colleges and online platforms with colorful names. But many were aimed at helping people fulfill certification requirements to work in the industry. Maryland is the first major academic institution to lend its name to a graduate-level degree aimed at scientists, health care workers and entrepreneurs.
The two-year program was put together from scratch and takes what Eddington says is a “scientific approach,” but the course work made it accessible to those who didn’t necessarily have a science background. Applicants did have to have an undergraduate degree to apply to the program, offered virtually through the university’s Shady Grove campus in Rockville.
Eddington said about a third of the first class already had experience in the industry. About half of the students were health care professionals and scientists, and the other half were attorneys, public health professionals, patient advocates, educators and entrepreneurs.
About 150 started the program, with 18 either not graduating on time or not completing the program. The next class, which is a year into the program, has 250 students. Most students come from within Maryland, but some are out of state and a few are international.
Tecoya and Karriem Farrakhan are two of the newly minted graduates. The Baltimore County couple already each have doctor of pharmacy and master of business administration degrees. He was running a pharmacy staffing service and she had been working as clinical director in a dispensary when they decided to apply to the new master’s program.
They liked the idea of developing educational standards for all medical cannabis professionals. They had already been interested in the benefits to patients from cannabis for people not benefiting from traditional medications or those who were suffering side effects when they heard about the Maryland program.
“It will ensure everyone is providing the same sound, clinical information to patients,” Tecoya Farrakhan said, “and provide a basis to continue research and expand the science.”
They’ve not yet decided what to do with their new education, but said it will be entrepreneurial. They’ve been discussing possibilities with other graduates, assessing how to merge different fields.
Karriem Farrakhan said the couple plan to launch a new business or two in the next two or three years.
The Maryland program included required and elective courses in basic science, clinical use, adverse effects, public health, and federal and state laws and policies.
The course work does not overlap with the pharmacy program, which has about 115 to 140 students a year in master’s and doctoral programs.
Eddington did not yet know where graduates would be headed for work but believes the degree will put them in demand. There are 36 states that allow medical cannabis sales.
The Maryland Cannabis Commission, which oversees the state’s industry, reports that dispensary sales continue to grow — to more than $48 million in April from $34 million in April 2020.
There were also more than 123,000 patients registered in the state at the end of 2020, up from 87,000 the year before. There were more than 2,000 providers registered at the year’s end.