Few options exist at MSU for prospective cannabis students

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Thousands of students attend Michigan State University to study biology, chemistry, pharmacology, toxicology, business and agriculture. While these programs might not seem all too similar, an uncommon link creates a connection between them all — cannabis.

Its multi-disciplinary nature and wide variety of uses have resulted in a multi-million-dollar industry, especially since its legalization for recreational use in 2019. This has resulted in a student population that is seeking to focus on entrance into this industry.

But these students won't find any level of cannabis-focused education at MSU.

Students looking to learn about cannabis are unable to participate in a related degree or certificate program at MSU. In fact, administrators in several colleges at MSU were unable to name a single class dedicated to the science, use or cultivation of cannabis.

There are, however, other options available for prospective cannabis students in Michigan.

In 2017, Northern Michigan University, or NMU, offered the nation’s first degree in medicinal plant chemistry, with a focus on the “cannabis, herbal extract, and natural product industries.” At NMU, prospective students can also enroll in online cannabis certificate degrees.

Lake Superior State University would follow in 2019, offering the nation’s first degree explicitly for cannabis chemistry. Then, the University of Michigan made PharmSci 420, Medicinal Cannabis, available to students through the pharmaceutical sciences department. Grand Valley State University offers an undergraduate certificate in cannabis operations and community planning, consisting of four classes explicitly focused on cannabis.

In Pontiac, an entire vocational school dedicated only to the study of cannabis, Higher Learning Institutions, opened in 2019. There, students can take eight-week courses and earn certificates in Cannabis Consultation, Cultivation and Extraction.

Despite other universities offering programs and classes that cover different facets of cannabis education, it is yet to be explained why MSU falls behind in these offerings.

College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, or CANR, Assistant Director for Student Recruitment & Retention Jeff Keson said the lag is due in part to the federal government's classification of cannabis as a Schedule I substance.

“Many of the issues with cannabis research stems from its classification as a Schedule I substance and the restrictions set by the federal government,” Keson said in an email.

“Since MSU receives federal funding, this limits what we can do.”

According to a recently published National Center for Biotechnology Information article, these barriers mostly apply to securing funding and the supply of physical, legal cannabis from the National Institute of Health, which includes submitting forms for approval that would be reviewed by a range of federal, state and local institutions, including the Federal Department of Agriculture, or FDA, and the Drug Enforcement Administration, or DEA.

Marcus Duck, Department of Horticulture Programs Coordinator, also said federal restrictions as the reason why there are no mentions of cannabis growth, nutrition, harvesting or processing in their curricula.

“Unfortunately, since cannabis is not a legal crop on the federal level, we cannot teach or instruct on the subject of cannabis production (growth, nutrition, harvest, processing, etc.), nor are we allowed to provide information to our students on the availability of jobs offered by companies involved,” Duck said in an email.

Duck highlighted that this statement was provided by higher-ups in CANR to use as a response to cannabis-related questions, which he said often come from industry stakeholders.

Yet, as previously illustrated, many other public universities do instruct about cannabis. NMU Chemistry Department Head Mark Paulsen said that there are no legal issues in the university talking about cannabis.

“We can lecture on the endocannabinoid system or the biosynthetic pathways for cannabinoid production or health and safety compliance testing without concern of running into legal issues,” Paulsen said in an email.

Paulsen said that NMU recognizes that there are nuances to the use of different cannabis products.

“Some of our students are involved in hemp-related research, but under current federal law there is no issue with that,” Paulsen said in the email. “Measuring amounts of CBD, for instance, in sample teaches students how to quantify cannabinoids but avoids dealing with THC, which can be an issue.”

He also added that NMU does not advocate the usage of any federally illegal drug.

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Program Director Brandon Canfield helped create the Medicinal Plant Chemistry program at NMU. He said doing so was a necessity based on what he saw in some of the first cannabis institutions post-legalization.

“The need for programs is, and was, great,” Canfield said. “I had just come from an American Chemical Society conference where the cannabis chemistry subdivision had a session and multiple speakers were talking about the abysmal state of testing labs in California and in other states.”

He said that this need was especially apparent when he was shown pictures of testing labs at the conference.

“You had people who had maybe been doing some analysis on their product for a long time, but not trained, not just in the analysis itself, but good lab practices, integrity of the data and safety,” Canfield said.

“Some of the pictures of these labs, it was scary. I wouldn’t want to walk into one of those.”

NMU is also able to grow cannabis for their courses, as long as the plants are within the regulations outlined in the 2018 Farm Bill’s definition of hemp, Canfield said.

“In early 2019, we were working with the Michigan Department of Agricultural and Rural Development and ended up getting our permission to grow low-THC plants,” Canfield said.

“Then, we just started doing that because we had the legal backing from the state.”

The 2018 Farm Bill allows for the legal growth and transport across state lines of cannabis that is below .3% THC, which is legally defined as hemp.

Had the university not allowed the program to grow hemp, Canfield said the program still could have gone on without the backing of the Farm Bill and was even originally designed to do so.

“The idea was that we would teach a lot of the extraction procedures and the analysis, but using other plants that students could grow,” Canfield said.

“Cannabis, itself, was not going to be on campus.”

Back at MSU, Pharmacology and Toxicology Professor Norbert Kaminski has experience in research on the topic of cannabis. He worked in the lab that first identified cannabinoid receptors and has focused on cannabinoid research since then.

Currently, his lab provides a select number of students the opportunity to work directly with cannabis compounds.

“We do have undergraduates, as well as graduates and post-doctorate fellows, that work in my laboratory, and some have contributed to this research,” Kaminski said.

Although his lab works with the compounds, he said he could only think of one undergraduate class that he could think of that dedicates any time to cannabis within the pharmacology and toxicology department, but this class focuses on drug abuse.

Kaminski was unaware whether discussions of cannabis-focused classes or programs have ever taken place within the various departments at MSU.

He also expanded on the information that Keson provided, regarding the barriers to cannabis research funding.

“To be able to obtain many of these compounds for research, especially delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol, which is the primary psychoactive component in cannabis, you must have a Schedule I DEA license,” Kaminski said.

“To obtain that license is not trivial. It actually requires a lot of paperwork. You actually have to submit protocols, what you will be doing with those compounds and, at least in my case, I also had to disclose who was actually funding that research.”

Kaminski recalled that shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic, the state of Michigan found that a 700-pound, refrigerated safe wasn’t sufficient to store what he said are only milligrams of research-grade cannabis compounds.

“They wanted us to secure that freezer to the floor or the wall with chains,” Kaminski said.

“It was the state that insisted that we have that bolted either to the floor or the wall. We had photographs to show them how we had secured it, so it really is not trivial.”

Kaminski said that MSU falls short of providing an education for those seeking entry into the cannabis industry due to a lack of faculty interest in creating these programs.

“I think there are very few faculty at Michigan State that have an interest in this area, both in terms of research and research funding, so that’s probably why you’re not seeing that,” Kaminski said.

“It has a lot to do with the fact that, especially for graduate courses, students already have so many courses they have to take that having courses so focused just on cannabis, I don’t think we would have many people take it.”

For now, students seeking an education that focuses on the cannabis industry are going to have to look outside of MSU.

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