Story at a glance

  • Marijuana use is legal on some level in more than 30 states, although there are still varying restrictions.
  • Doctors are prescribing cannabis for an increasing number of patients to help with chronic pain, insomnia and other issues.
  • The University of Maryland School of Pharmacy now offers a new Master of Science in Medical Cannabis Science and Therapeutics.
  • The two-year program will prepare graduates for new careers in research, health care and advocacy.

Melissa Beatty has been a pharmacist for more than 20 years. But after becoming jaded by seeing so many patients return for pill after pill, she knew she wanted to explore a more holistic approach to medicine — especially since medical marijuana helped her mother through cancer and has relieved her own struggle with back pain.

Two years ago, Beatty helped open a dispensary in Baltimore, and now she’s back in school at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy. There, she is one of 150 students in the brand new Master of Science in Medical Cannabis Science and Therapeutics program.

Melissa Beatty

School officials say it’s the first graduate program of its kind in the country and will help meet the growing demand for more research and an educated workforce as public opinion shifts to become more accepting of the use of cannabis to treat illnesses and chronic pain.

“If you look at the number of states that have a comprehensive medical cannabis program, it has increased over the last several years,” said Leah Sera, the program’s director and an assistant professor at the pharmacy school. “This is an expanding field.”

She said graduates of the two-year, mostly online program will leave equipped for a variety of careers in the field, from research and advocacy to health care. Courses will cover the science of how marijuana works in the body, as well as varying policies regarding medical marijuana across the U.S. and other countries.

Students won’t be getting high or learning how to grow the plant.

“Our program does not focus on adult or recreational use,” Sera said. “We really just focus on how cannabis is used as a medicine.”

Marijuana use is legal in more than 30 states, though specific policies vary. In Colorado and other western states, for example, adults are permitted to smoke pot without a medical reason, while in Maryland it is only approved for medical use. Patients must get a medical provider to sign off and register with the state regulating board.

The federal government restricts cannabis use and considers it among drugs such as heroin with a high potential for abuse. However, just this week, the House Judiciary Committee voted to legalize marijuana, which would give the Department of Veterans Affairs the greenlight to offer this treatment to veterans in states where its medical use is legal, as well as allow businesses, such as dispensaries, to apply for loans through the Small Business Administration. (The measure still needs approval by the full House and the Senate.)

The University of Maryland’s program fills a need in the industry across multiple levels, said Dr. J.H. Atkinson, co-director of the Center for Medical Cannabis Research at the University of California San Diego.

In his state, there is a large cannabis industry but no requirement that dispensaries are to be staffed by trained personnel, and even physicians are largely uneducated in this area, he said in an email. And with the program’s focus on policy and research, in addition to medicine, it could bring more awareness to some of the barriers to research because of federal regulations and create a more knowledgeable voter base that could help bring about change.

Beatty, who uses cannabis to help her sleep at night, as well as to relieve back pain, said she thinks the University of Maryland’s name on the program will go a long way to help end the stigma associated with medical marijuana, which she notices even among some who come to her dispensary.

“Having [the University of Maryland] step up and say, ‘This is medicine. We’re going to teach everybody how to properly educate people and educate themselves’ — I think that help gets rid of the stigma,” Beatty said. “Having them do this, I think, is huge.”

Sera said the school had initially planned on opening the program to only 50 students in the first cohort this fall, but after receiving more than 500 applications, school officials decided to expand the program. Another 150 will be admitted in fall 2020.

Classes are online, though students meet twice a year for live instruction at the school’s satellite campus near Washington, D.C. Beatty’s classmates include students from Australia and China, as well as the U.S. 

“It was very inspiring,” she said of their September meeting. “I was like, yes — definitely in the right place.”

Beatty said she’s been impressed with the quality of the program so far and knows it will only become more robust as time goes on.

“From my perspective, being a health care professional, being able to add this [degree] to what I’m doing is just going to be more beneficial,” she said.

Published on Nov 25, 2019