MARYLAND — Medical marijuana was legalized in Maryland in 2014. Shortly after that, the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy started looking into developing a medical cannabis program. They created the first graduate program for this field in the country, the Master of Science in Medical Cannabis Science and Therapeutics program. In Spring of 2021, their first class graduated the program.
"It's an overwhelming amount of accomplishment that we all managed to do this," said Dr. Leah Sera, who led the development of this program.
Her passion in this field started during her residency in hospice care, seeing how cannabis helped her patients. Now she's excited to be part of this new wave of knowledge.
"Our thought was, if we can create a foundation of knowledge in people that are coming from all different practice areas," said Dr. Sera. She added, "we can provide them with the knowledge that exists right now so they can go back out into their different practice settings and educate patients, healthcare professionals, researchers and then contribute to developing new knowledge."
Dr. Sera explained how this program is for a diverse group of people, not just those with a science or medicine background. The purpose is to educate those interested in medical cannabis to help patients. "It's all about the patient," Dr. Sera stressed. She added, "this is another tool that can help optimize patient care."
Dr. Sera said 70 percent of the students in this program want to be innovative in the cannabis industry. Erica Lehner is one of them. Her goal is to create a whole wellness experience for patients.
"There’s not really any lodging or resort areas for people who are cannabis consumers to go to freely and comfortably use their medication so I would like to have a lodging or retreat center where people can go and vacation and use their cannabis while they’re there and to have activities along with that so they can medicate and enjoy," said Lehner.
She was a patient before she enrolled in this program. She started using medical marijuana after she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis.
"When I was diagnosed, the medicine they wanted to put me on as a 21-year-old was a little bit scary to realize to be that I would be on that for the long term so I started looking into other holistic methods," said Lehner. She added, "I appreciate all the medical advances the world comes to but we also have to appreciate the natural healing that we have available to us."
Medical marijuana helped her. Then, she started working in the cannabis industry ad saw how much it helped others. She said, "that general quality of life and improvement really made me have the drive and made me want to get the education on the subject so I can 100 percent with confidence help people."
So as soon as she learned about the UMD program, she immediately applied. "Getting this degree helps to get rid of the stigma of cannabis especially as it develops," said Lehner.
She was one of 132 students to graduate this past Spring.
"As the first graduates of the first medical cannabis program in the country you are trailblazers, risk takers and leaders," said Natalie Eddington, the Dean of the School of Pharmacy, during the virtual graduation.
She explained how this program was created to meet the need for an educated workforce to respond to the demand in the growing cannabis industry.
"Our interest was really to professionalize medical cannabis. We wanted to provide an education on the science, the policy, the health effects, and the clinical care with medical cannabis," said Eddington. She added, "our fundamental thought was that there needs to be an understanding of the science of cannabis, of the plant and of the uses of the plant."
The program officially started two years ago but took years before that to get up and running.
"There was a bit of skepticism. I think that there was an effort to make sure everything we did was above board," said Eddington. She added, "we also had to bring in the attorney general to make sure what we were teaching was appropriate, make sure we’re not doing things such as aiding and abetting, make sure we are within the lines of the state and the country in terms of what we can and cannot say."
As the laws change, more research is conducted and the cannabis industry evolves, the program will adjust as well.
The next graduating class has 259 students. Open enrollment for Fall 2022 starts July 31st. To learn more, click here.