A Starting Dose: The Nation’s First Master’s Program in Medical Cannabis

CannabizMD Founder/CEO Jacquie Cohen Roth sat down with Natalie D. Eddington, PhD, FAAPS, FCP, and Professor Executive Director of University Regional Partnerships at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy (UMSOP), the day after it was announced that it will offer the first medical cannabis graduate study program in the country.  We learned more about Dr. Eddington, the program and her vision for professional success. 

CannabizMD (CBMD): We hit you on a busy day.
Dean Natalie Eddington (DNE): All my days are busy. But I think it’s a good thing.

CBMD: How did you get started on this journey to creating a medical cannabis graduate study program?
DNE: First, I want to say that we’re really proud to be doing something like this. We started a couple of years ago working with the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission (MMCC). Initially, we were doing an online program for industry professionals and there were some issues. One of the challenges that we had is we developed the program and didn’t run it past Maryland’s Attorney General’s office. So that was a lesson for us.

CBMD: Were the issues because cannabis is federally illegal?
DNE: Right. We talked about specifically growing within the first curriculum which is an area that we cannot discuss. But what it did for us is it helped us to understand that as a school of pharmacy, we can play a role in supporting this workforce that continues to grow. Our role as the School of Pharmacy at the University of Maryland – Baltimore is to support workforce needs, and this is a definite workforce need. So, after going through the appropriate process, we started to write our program about a year ago. We didn’t want to put barriers in place. We wanted any student with a bachelor’s degree to be able to take these courses and complete the program.

CBMD: What sort of barriers?
DNE: We could have said that it’s only for, let’s say, healthcare professionals. Or only for students who have a bachelor’s degree in science. We didn’t want to do that because we didn’t want to limit it. In this program, we are saying that anyone with a bachelor’s degree can apply and we will provide you with the background you need to understand the science courses, as well as classes that are focused on therapeutics.

CBMD: Do you include a focus on policy in the program?
DNE: Yes, we start with policy. The majority of the program is online with lessons and videos, etc. to provide the foundational knowledge. We talk about the science of medical cannabis, meaning the components, the pharmacology and those kinds of things at a level that isn’t too deep, but rather more broad to give a context of the science. It is important, from our perspective, to understand the components, the characteristics of the components and know the science, but also think about the challenges in terms of administration – orally versus other mechanisms, and why, so they have a deeper understanding for why it’s been smoked for so long. We talk about clinical care and therapeutics. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine did a wonderful report a couple of years ago on medical cannabis as it relates to indications. The report provides the scientific underpinnings that supports its use for pain management, for anxiety and many other indications. But being in an academic university setting, we’d still like to see more research.

CBMD: By engaging in research in this industry, are you setting yourselves up for exposure to risk?
DNE: Yes. Around the country, you may be aware that a few universities have stated they are going to do research. But the challenge that we have is that our federal funding will be at risk.

CBMD: What’s the history with research and cannabis?
DNE: For about 40 years, the United States has had one place where the cannabis grown could be used for research studies:  the University of Mississippi School of Pharmacy. There is a two-step process to have access to cannabis that involves the review and approval of research protocols by both the FDA and DEA.  This process takes about 10 months.  Hopefully, at some point in time in the near future, the timeline will decrease and in addition, it will be far easier for the cannabis industry to conduct research programs regarding medical cannabis.

CBMD: Why do we need a medical cannabis master’s program like this in Maryland?
DNE: We aren’t just looking at Maryland. We want to lead the education in medical cannabis in the United States. The workforce needs and projections around the country are huge.

CBMD: Where did you get your data?
DNE: We looked at Indeed, what companies are posting job opportunities. We use New Frontier Data, which provides workforce projection data. There are 250,000 new positions in the industry that will be available over the next couple of years. These huge numbers aren’t usually seen in terms of workforce needs. The other justification for us was that the nursing and pharmacy literature surveyed current students and graduates on whether they are comfortable prescribing, dosing and understanding medical cannabis. The majority of responses showed that students are not exposed to this during their education and don’t know the specifics.

CBMD: Will the program deliver job placement for the graduates?
DNE: Just as we bring in community pharmacies and health systems for the pharmacy students, we will also bring in medical cannabis experts from around the state and have a full-day symposium. We will also have industry leaders from across the country talk with our students about their needs and perspectives. Students will get this added understanding of what they ought to be focusing on. That will bring value because we are bringing in the workforce and asking them to tell us what they need. There are all of these different types of workforces that the industry is looking for – folks with expertise in manufacturing and growing, chemists, healthcare providers. 

CBMD: What was the process to get the program approved and developed?
DNE: It took about a year from conception to developing the program and then submitting to go through the approvals. The first thing we did after drafting the proposal is we sent it to the Attorney General to read it and ensure the content of courses was appropriate. After we had the OK, then it went through our university, then the  Board of Regents, and then the Maryland Higher Education Commission.

CBMD: How did the federally illegality of cannabis create issues?
DNE: We have specific direction from the Attorney General on what we can teach. I am hopeful that as we go forward, we will see changes that will allow us to bring that content into the program once the federal and state laws are better aligned. Our goal is to have a good quality program. We’ve been proactive and have learned a lot. It’s a step-by-step process, like research. I talk to a lot of cannabis providers and always ask them, “What is it you need?” And they’ll say, “A starting dose.” Right now they titrate everything to each individual. And that’s OK for some things, but if you’re in pain, you need the right dose now.

CBMD: You’re a scientist. Do you see efficacy in clinical use of cannabis?
DNE: The National Academy report was so impactful. They’re giving their stamp of approval and I think that means a great deal. That is the guiding light for research because they’ve done a thorough analysis of existing research across the U.S. and globally, and they have assessed cannabis for specific indications using a green light, yellow light and red light evaluation. But what we still don’t know is what if you’re extracting CBD, what’s the role of the terpenes? We sort of know, but we could optimize that and do some research. There is a lot of work to be done to clarify how to best use cannabis. How do we get the right components and the right dosage at the right time for the right patient? There is an interest in doing research, there are just barriers. How do we remove those barriers that will allow us to do some double-blind studies to respond to a research question about cannabis? That’s the step forward.

CBMD: As a woman of color in science, what are the challenges?
DNE: How much time do you have? (Laughs.) The opportunities for women and minorities are growing. As an African American female dean, I can tell you that pharmacy is not the most diverse profession. We work on improving that. I’ve been dean for 11 years here at the University of Maryland – Baltimore. My story is that I graduated from Howard University in Washington, D.C., which is a historically black college. Then I came to the University of Maryland Baltimore to do my PhD. I was the second African American to complete a PhD program here at the time. From there, I went to Pfizer in New York, so I have a clinical trial background. Then I came here as an assistant professor because I was tired of being telling me what to do.

CBMD: What is your advice to all women for professional success in the field of science?
DNE: The first thing is you can’t be shy. You have to say what you want and be clear about that. You have to network. And the other thing is to never minimalize your possibilities. The biggest problem is we don’t see ourselves in leadership positions. We want somebody to say, “It’s your turn.” As women, when we are able to identify an opportunity that aligns with our portfolio, our characteristics, our expertise, then we need to pursue that.