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The First Online Medical Cannabis Degree: An Interview with the Program's Director

We wanted to bring in as diverse a student body as possible because we know that individuals with many different backgrounds play important roles in the medical cannabis industry.

Dr. Leah Sera, Assistant Professor and Director of the Master’s in Medical Cannabis Science and Therapeutics Program, University of Maryland School of Pharmacy

Ignorance is definitely not bliss when it comes to medical treatments. But for over a century, public fear-mongering about cannabis has kept patients, students, researchers, and educators in the dark about the positive benefits the plant can provide.

The medical use of cannabis dates back to ancient history. In the first and second century AD, a Chinese surgeon, Hua Tuo, reduced the plant to powder, mixed it with wine, and used it as an anesthetic. The Ancient Egyptians used cannabis to treat sore eyes as far back as 2000 BC. Medieval Arabic physicians found a wealth of applications for cannabis: as an anti-inflammatory, as an analgesic, and as an antiepileptic.

Things are finally beginning to change in the United States. In the last 23 years, 33 states have legalized the medical use of cannabis. More legislation is on its way. The cannabis industry does over $52 billion in annual sales, and job availability went up by 76 percent across the sector last year (Business Insider April 2019). But with so few academic programs on the subject, where are the leaders in the medical cannabis industry going to come from?

In the near-term future, many of them will come from the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy (UMSOP), which started the nation’s first master’s program in medical cannabis science and therapeutics.

Interview with the Program Director: Leah Sera, PharmD, BCPS

Dr. Leah Sara

“We started this program to respond to an evolving and expanding medical cannabis industry,” says Dr. Leah Sera, an assistant professor at UMSOP and the director of the MS in medical cannabis science and therapeutics program.

“We saw the need for this industry to have an educated workforce. At the same time, a number of surveys had been published over the last several years, primarily of health professionals, that indicated a knowledge gap related to medical cannabis topics that we felt we could address through formal education.”

The only admission requirement for the program is a bachelor’s degree. There’s no required field of study, no prerequisite coursework. All the basic science and clinical instruction necessary is included as part of the program.

“We wanted to bring in as diverse a student body as possible because we know that individuals with many different backgrounds play important roles in the medical cannabis industry,” says Dr. Sera. “About half of our students have a background in science and medicine, and the rest have backgrounds in law, communications, education, public health, advocacy, and other fields.”

The curriculum covers four areas: basic science, clinical uses, adverse effects, and public policy. After four required courses, students choose four electives to round out their education and target it towards their goals within the industry.

“Our two advanced clinical electives explore the physiology, pathophysiology, traditional treatment strategies, and role of cannabis in different symptoms and conditions,” says Dr. Sera. “We offer two science electives: one in chemistry and analytical methods and another in cannabis genomics. We offer an elective in law and policy that builds on our required introductory course in medical cannabis history, culture, and policy.”

The blended program is delivered primarily online, making it flexible for students to complete, There is a once-per-semester in-person symposium at the Universities at Shady Grove in Rockville, Maryland campus, giving students a chance to meet face-to-face. During these sessions, students work together on group projects, participate in networking sessions with industry professionals, and attend seminars by experts working in the medical cannabis field. It allows students to cross-pollinate and stay current on an evolving industry, while simultaneously preparing them to meet the needs of the future.

“The medical cannabis field is likely to change considerably over the next few years,” Dr. Sera says.

The program runs on a rolling admissions process, meaning they only review applications until they fill a class. Instruction begins every August. So far, they have students coming from a wide variety of different fields: medicine, research, policy development, advocacy. Dr. Sera expects that, as graduates, they’ll use what they’ve learned to care for patients, to take a leading role in medical cannabis research and development, and to educate patients, healthcare professionals, and policymakers.

“These students are the most enthusiastic, motivated, and creative group of students I have ever met,” Dr. Sera says. “They are trailblazers in this industry, and I can’t wait to see how they are involved in moving the medical cannabis field into the future.”

Matt Zbrog

Matt Zbrog is a writer and freelancer who has been living abroad since 2016. His nonfiction has been published by Euromaidan Press, Cirrus Gallery, and Our Thursday. Both his writing and his experience abroad are shaped by seeking out alternative lifestyles and counterculture movements, especially in developing nations. You can follow his travels through Eastern Europe and Central Asia on Instagram at @weirdviewmirror. He’s recently finished his second novel, and is in no hurry to publish it.