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University of Maryland School of Pharmacy to offer medical cannabis education

The University of Maryland School of Pharmacy will offer the nation’s first graduate degree in medical cannabis, reversing a decision made two years ago to stay out of the field.

Training for medical cannabis-related jobs has been dominated by little-known, unaccredited online entities, as traditional universities have shied away from training and research related to marijuana, legal in many states but still considered illegal at the federal level.

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Officials with Maryland’s well-regarded pharmacy school had said they felt training, required of workers in Maryland’s industry, was part of the school’s mission. But they abruptly canceled courses after receiving legal advice from the Maryland attorney general’s office.

The office weighed in again on the latest educational plan, though officials at the school and in the attorney general’s office declined to say what the advice was.

Natalie D. Eddington, dean and professor of the School of Pharmacy, said training remained part of the school’s mission, but officials preferred the more holistic, science-based curriculum of a two-year master of science in medical cannabis science and therapeutics over what she characterized as “workforce training.”

“Medical cannabis has been legalized in 33 states, including Maryland,” Eddington said. “This number is only expected to increase in the future, fueling a demand for an educated workforce that is well-trained in both the science and therapeutic effects associated with this medicinal plant. Our MS in Medical Cannabis Science and Therapeutics has been critically designed to prepare students to meet this demand.”

The coursework will largely be offered online but will require some in-person instruction on the school’s Rockville campus in the Washington suburbs.

Eddington said she believes the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission, which oversees the industry, has found other suppliers to train the dispensary workforce in the state. She acknowledged that some workers could not enroll in the Maryland master’s program because the main requirement is a bachelor’s degree of any kind.

A spokeswoman for the commission did not respond to request for comment about how many workers have received the required training and how it is policed.

In the two years since the pharmacy school backed out of training, the industry has only grown in the state. Dispensaries were just receiving permission to open and sell medical cannabis in 2017 and the first opened that December.

Retail sales rose in each month of 2018, with total sales for the year reaching $109.5 million, according to commission figures. Sales in the first five months of 2019 totaled $85.6 million.

More than 68,000 people are registered for the state’s medical marijuana program. More than 1,440 providers, including 825 doctors, can recommend the drug, which is not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and can’t be prescribed.

There are 77 licensed dispensaries statewide.

The program Maryland’s pharmacy school planned to offer two years ago was a joint effort with Americans for Safe Access, which offered its curriculum to the school. The advocacy group is not involved in the latest effort and it’s not clear how much of the curriculum is similar, though Eddington said the program started from scratch.

She said the program would appeal to people involved in different aspects of the industry, from clinicians and researchers to dispensary workers to policy makers.

Debbie Churgai, interim director for Americans for Safe Access, said she did not know what changed or why the university did not approach the group again.

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The group continues to offer its own courses that focus on how to operate legally and based on what’s known about the science, she said. Churgai said her group initially approached Maryland and persuaded it of the need for well-crafted and standardized training. Maryland could lend credibility and reach far more students, she said.

“We applaud Maryland for finally doing it,” Churgai said about the training. “It would have been nice if they gave us some credit.”

Shad Ewart, a professor at Anne Arundel Community College who teaches a class on the business of cannabis for entrepreneurs, said Maryland is likely to be successful with its program given growing demand for training and the federal government’s inaction on enforcement.

“I think the UMd System saw the other 20 or so public colleges across the country starting programs and the feds NOT coming in and pulling federal research dollars or Pell Grants or whatever their fears were of some type of retribution and so the door is open and the students will come,” Ewart said in an email.

His own course has been popular, and he said he now knows of 20 graduates working in the licensed part of the Maryland industry.

The University of Maryland Board of Regents approved the pharmacy school’s program June 21.

Materials provided to the regents show four core required courses covering the principles of drug action and cannabinoid pharmacology; cannabinoid chemistry and drug delivery; clinical uses and effects of medical cannabis; and an overview of current state and federal laws and regulations, along with a historical overview of medical cannabis use. Elective courses will be available in areas including basic sciences, therapeutics and policy.

Courses will begin in the fall.

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