U.S. mainstream schools move slowly to fill the massive marijuana knowledge gap.

By Chris Roberts , Cannabis Now

You could call Michelle Wernette a marijuana autodidact. Nearly everything the San Francisco-based entrepreneur knows about cannabis she learned by doing or through firsthand observation.

This is a very common experience among American cannabis patients and advocates — and it is also a longstanding and growing problem that academia is only now moving to address, albeit at a cautious clip far outpaced by the still-booming marijuana market.

After seeing how medical cannabis helped her husband’s health problems, Wernette experimented on her own for her arthritis. She found that it worked, mostly. Some strains were great, others weren’t. Dabbing turned her off entirely, until she realized (again, through self-guided experimentation and firsthand observation) that she could dab CBD extracts or take a dose smaller than the reality-shattering gram-sized rips de rigueur at some industry events.

To figure out what about cannabis worked best for her, Wernette was on her own. Budtenders at dispensaries weren’t much help, and there wasn’t a trusted resource to consult or accredited professionals from whom she could seek counsel.

“There’s definitely a huge knowledge gap,” she said. “We don’t have a lot of trusted sources right now… I had to get there on my own.”

Today, Wernette and her husband, Andy, are launching a bespoke dab-bar company called SoTru, aimed at social and corporate events looking for a change of pace from alcohol (or wook-friendly dab bars, for that matter). Their target market includes women and cannabis newcomers. For these reasons, a significant part of the business model involves education — that is, offering a shortcut to the knowledge base that Wernette achieved only through years of trial and error.

But, despite the fact that Wernette knows more about marijuana than most people, she still doesn’t feel like she knows enough to call herself an expert.

This is how she and her husband found themselves in a classroom at the City College of San Francisco on a recent evening, taking advantage of a small-but-growing movement in accredited American universities located in states that have legalized recreational or medical marijuana. These universities are filling an obvious and growing knowledge gap by putting some level of cannabis education on the curriculum — before it’s too late.

A Cautious Renaissance of Learning

As medical and recreational cannabis legalization continues to win favor with voters and lawmakers from city councils to Congress, a clear problem has emerged: There is a dearth of accurate and reliable information, and even fewer universally trusted authoritative sources, on cannabis.

This knowledge shortage is almost entirely attributable to prohibition. For many decades, the vast majority of information available from “official sources” (from authorities including law enforcement, the federal government and the limited drug-education American students received through health classes or D.A.R.E.) stated that marijuana was harmful.

All of these claims were easily refutable through personal experimentation. One only needed to be a cannabis user (or to know one) to see firsthand that marijuana use was not a one-way road to perdition — and that it might even provide some medical benefits.

This dichotomy had a compounding effect. Whatever the official researchers came up with was tainted by their association with the government — they were part of the liar’s league. And whatever alternative sources may have arisen, be they a book by Jack Herer, proclamations from Dennis Peron that “all cannabis use is medical,” or careful examinations of existing medical literature by Project CBD, immediately rose in stature.

As medical and recreational cannabis legalization continues, academia is only now beginning to emerge from these cannabis Dark Ages into a sort of Renaissance of learning. This is being aided in no small part by research conducted in the 19th century, when cannabis was a known and accepted medicinal plant included in the American and British pharmacopeia. Even with legalization favored by a majority of Americans and cannabis for medical use accepted by 93 percent of Americans, according to a spring 2018 poll, universities are exercising an abundance of caution and moving at a snail’s pace.

For years, the only education available was at dedicated cannabis colleges, aimed directly at preparing people for cannabis-industry jobs. Some, like Oakland’s Oaksterdam University, have withstood the test of time (and multiple law-enforcement raids) to become a sort of gold-standard for the cannabis industry. But without accreditation, Oaksterdam cannot offer degrees — merely certificates — and its contribution to the greater body of knowledge is limited.

Cannabis For Credit, But No Marijuana Major

As of the fall of 2018, only a handful of accredited colleges and universities across the country now offer limited coursework in cannabis. Some are for credit, but most, like the City College of San Francisco’s, are non-credit courses. Nearly all of the courses are very limited in scope.

The business-oriented cannabis enthusiast in Colorado can take advantage of the University of Denver’s course on the Business of Marijuana. At Vanderbilt University’s law school in Tennessee — where cannabis is still entirely illegal, and where state lawmakers recently undid decriminalization efforts taken by city councils in Nashville and Memphis — there is a Marijuana Law and Policy course.

Presenting even these limited offerings has proven challenging. Planned seminars on a variety of cannabis topics at Sonoma State University’s School of Extended and International Education were canceled this past spring. The university had hoped to re-offer those seminars in the fall, but it was not clear as of September if those plans had materialized.

Even the City College seminars that Wernette is attending, entitled “Curious about Cannabis?”, are something of a consolation prize.

The college’s initial plan, as first reported by the San Francisco Examiner, was to offer career-focused job training. Similar to the college’s offerings for would-be entrants into plumbing, carpentry and other vocational preparation programs, participants would have earned a certificate — and, hopefully, a leg up in the hiring process at area dispensaries and cultivation sites.

However, that certificate program didn’t quite materialize, for reasons college officials declined to share with Cannabis Now. For the moment, the college is happy to take a slow and holistic approach.

“We’re testing the market right now,” said Theresa Rowland, CCSF’s associate vice chancellor of workforce and economic development. She was present at the class attended by the Wernettes and six others, a motley crew that included two very noticeable men in suits — both from the insurance industry. “These workshops are trying to determine what information might be useful, what kind of information might be helpful,” Rowland said.

To that end, the workshop’s instructors offered what could best be described as an omnivore’s buffet of information: social, political and scientific.

Sara Payan, a cancer survivor and education specialist at a San Francisco dispensary (as well as a Cannabis Now contributor), talked about “the continuum of use,” a spectrum that runs from healing specific afflictions to “increasing wellness, even in the absence of illness.”

Her co-instructor, a licensed psychotherapist named Jamie Lavender, took a few minutes to discuss the meaning of the word “addiction” — and elicited more than a few surprise “hmms!” from his pupils when he mentioned that marijuana was indeed an accepted medical treatment in the 1850s, well before it was made illegal for purely political, and almost certainly racist, motives beginning in the early 20th century.

This broad-based approach, while necessary to correct generations of reefer madness-inspired, Nixonian misinformation, also underscores the need for dedicated specialization. And so far, only one university offers anything close to a “major in marijuana”: Northern Michigan University’s four-year degree in medical plant chemistry.

By completing the coursework — created to fulfill a “great demand for qualified technical personnel and a great opportunity for the skilled entrepreneur” — students fulfill a curriculum heavy on chemistry, plant biology and research. Students can then choose whether to add electives preparing them for a business-focused entrepreneurial track or to pursue advanced courses in chemistry or biology to prepare themselves for research work in the lab.

Either way, the program has proven extremely popular. Enrollment increased in fall 2018 to 232 students, from around 40 in the program at the end of the 2017-2018 academic year, according to Professor Mark Paulsen, who oversees the program.

“We have had applications from 47 states, I think, and inquiries from a variety of countries,” he told Cannabis Now in an email.

In California, the University of California at Davis offers undergraduates a credit course in the physiology of cannabis. And perhaps most importantly, proceeds from marijuana sales taxes under Prop. 64, California’s 2016 recreational marijuana legalization law, are funding the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research, which is headquartered at the University of California at San Diego. The research center recently announced the beginning of a new study to examine marijuana’s ability to alleviate symptoms of essential tremor, a nervous system disorder that affects 10 million Americans.

The fact that this limited study, beginning at this late stage, is nonetheless a landmark is illuminating of a larger problem: Perhaps the biggest gap in cannabis knowledge is not among consumers or businesspeople, but among medical professionals.

A Patient-Driven Exercise

Mark Ware, a physician, researcher and professor at Montreal’s McGill University, told SF Weekly in a 2013 interview that cannabis science was almost entirely absent from medical-school curricula — a problem that had persisted for many years.

“There are several prescription cannabinoids, but not many physicians even realize that these exist,” he said during a 2010 interview. “So there’s a lot of work to do even there.”

Ware himself had become interested in cannabis as a palliative only after listening to patients at the Montreal hospital where he was working, who told him — time and again, and for countless afflictions — that they used marijuana to alleviate their symptoms. Ware just happened to be one of the few doctors who dared to pay attention.

Eight years later, as Canada moved towards legalized recreational marijuana in October 2018, Ware said that “lack of data [and] lack of research” remained. As it has been since the beginning, marijuana remains driven by “patients and the courts,” Ware said in a late 2017 address at McGill.

“It began with patients coming forward saying they used cannabis to treat their symptoms,” he said. “This has always been a patient-driven exercise.”

This history of nonexistent medical education on cannabis is a problem for researchers and for physicians both, because neither they nor patients have any meaningful benchmarks nor even a language to use to quantify anything.

“Cannabis is a complex construct,” Ware said. “Dose is critical, and we’re really bad at measuring it.”

Ware went on to note that, without standardized and meaningful dosage measures, “there are 250,000 cannabis patients in Canada right now” and “we know nothing” about their intake and how, exactly, marijuana alleviates their symptoms.

Keep in mind that this is in Canada, where at least doctors and researchers can prescribe and study the drug without fear of losing their licensing or their university’s funding and accreditation — the penalties that loom over many academics in the United States.

In this vacuum, knowledge advancement may have to be led by the market — or worse, motivated by the need to fix pervasive misinformation, such as the tales that the sellers of “legal in all 50 states” CBD products spin, claiming their products are good for nearly every affliction under the sun without supporting research or studies.

Wernette related a telling anecdote: A dispensary recently tried to open for business in her San Francisco neighborhood, along the city’s western edge, and was met with vociferous opposition — most of it based on ill-founded knowledge, sowed in part by unscrupulous bad-faith actors.

“People just heard what people told them,” she said.

In this post-legalization paradigm, universities have a definite role to play by providing accurate, peer-reviewed information that can withstand scrutiny. The only question is how soon they’ll be able to provide it.

TELL US, would you take an official, credited course about cannabis?

Originally published in Issue 34 of Cannabis Now. LEARN MORE