Summer Kriegshauser is one of 150 students in the inaugural class of the University of Maryland, Baltimore's Master of Science in Medical Cannabis Science and Therapeutics, the first graduate program of its type in the country.
This will be Kriegshauser's second master's degree and she hopes it will offer her a chance to change careers.
"I didn't want to quit my really great job and work at a dispensary making $12 to $14 an hour," says Kriegshauser, who is 40. "I really wanted a scientific basis for learning the properties of cannabis — all the cannabinoids and how they interact with the body. I wanted to learn about dosing. I wanted to learn about all the ailments and how cannabis is used within a medical treatment plan, and I just wasn't finding that anywhere," she adds.
The program stands largely alone: Some universities offer one-off classes on marijuana and two have created undergraduate degrees in medicinal plant chemistry, but none have yet gone as far as Maryland.
Stretched over two years and conducted almost exclusively online, the program launched as an increasing number of jurisdictions across the country legalize pot — primarily for medical uses, but in some places recreational, as well.
As of mid-October, nearly three dozen states, the District of Columbia, Guam, Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands had legalized medical cannabis, creating an ever-expanding universe of opportunities for people looking to grow, process, recommend and sell the drug to patients. And given how quickly attitudes and laws on cannabis are shifting, those opportunities are expected to keep expanding.
But even as the industry has quickly grown, expertise has remained largely informal. And for people looking to change careers, like Kriegshauser, getting into the legal cannabis field can seem risky, with the likely job options hard to come by.
The University of Maryland credits the overwhelming response to its graduate program to that desire for more information and opportunity. More than 500 hopefuls applied for what was supposed to be a class of 50, prompting the university to increase the size of the inaugural class threefold. And the class is geographically diverse, coming from 32 states and D.C., plus Hong Kong and Australia.
The students take four required core courses — including one on the history of medical weed and culture, and two basic science classes. Students then choose between a number of electives.
Leah Sera, a pharmacist and the program's director, says officials at the university see a parallel trend. More and more of their graduates were entering a professional world where cannabis is seen as an alternative medicine for any number of ailments, and one that more patients are curious about.
"There have been a number of studies, primarily with health professionals, indicating that there is an educational gap related to medical cannabis — that health professionals want more education because patients are coming to them with questions about cannabis and therapeutic uses," Sera says.
Staci Gruber, an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, is leading one of the country's most ambitious research projects on medical marijuana at McLean Hospital in Boston.
She says Maryland's program is proof that as the drug becomes ever more present among patients, more research on its effects will be needed.
"I know some say, 'Oh, it's just a moneymaker for the institution,' but it's because people are asking for it," she says. "People are interested in learning more and knowing more, so [Maryland's program] underscores the need to have more data."
That's the challenge for an academic program on cannabis; the drug remains largely illegal under federal law, which has hampered its study over the years and means very little concrete research exists for students to dig into. But as that changes, Sera says, the program will continue to evolve.
And she expects that students will see immediate opportunities in the rapidly expanding industry once they graduate.
There remains plenty of uncertainty, of course, and as the recreational use of weed is made legal in more places, established medical cannabis programs, and their associated jobs, may dwindle. But Summer Kriegshauser says making the leap into Maryland's program made sense for her — and she bets it will pay off.
An earlier Web version of this story incorrectly referred to Staci Gruber as a pharmacist. Gruber is an associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Medical marijuana is now legal in almost three dozen states, and it's become a growing source of tax revenue and employment. But for all the job opportunities medical marijuana can offer, there really hasn't been any formal training or academic credential for it until now. The University of Maryland recently launched a master's program in cannabis science. Officials hope it will train students to step into a growing marijuana industry. Martin Austermuhle for member station WAMU has this report.
MARTIN AUSTERMUHLE, BYLINE: Before she heads off to work in downtown Washington every morning, Summer Kriegshauser (ph) sneaks in a bit of classwork for a graduate degree she's pursuing.
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AUSTERMUHLE: Master's degrees are a dime a dozen in the nation's capital, but what sets Kriegshauser's apart is the subject matter - marijuana, or cannabis, as it's more formally known.
SUMMER KRIEGSHAUSER: I've been really interested in learning about medical cannabis, and I've been searching for quite some time for any sort of education on this. And I really couldn't find any formal, legitimate academic program.
AUSTERMUHLE: But one legitimate academic program has come along. The University of Maryland created an online master's program in cannabis science and therapeutics, and Kriegshauser is part of the inaugural class of 150 students. They started classes in August in what university officials say is the first program of its kind in the country. Dr. Leah Sera is the program's director. She says the university created the master's in marijuana because of how quickly the industry has expanded, including in Maryland, where sales of medical marijuana started two years ago. There are now more than 80,000 patients in the state's program.
LEAH SERA: Health professionals want more education because patients are coming to them with questions about cannabis and therapeutic uses.
AUSTERMUHLE: For Kriegshauser, Maryland's new program offers her a chance to enter the industry at a higher level.
KRIEGSHAUSER: I didn't want to quit my really great job and work at a dispensary making, you know, $12 or $14 an hour learning or think I was learning about cannabis that way.
AUSTERMUHLE: But one challenge the students face is that there's not a lot of research or data out there on what marijuana does to the body. That's because it remains illegal on the federal level, limiting how much researchers and scientists can learn about the drug. Staci Gruber teaches at the Harvard Medical School and is leading one of the country's most ambitious research projects on medical marijuana at the McLean Hospital in Boston. She says Maryland's program is proof that as medical marijuana becomes ever more present, more research on its effects will be needed.
STACI GRUBER: The fact that a program like this now exists, which I know some say, oh, it's just a moneymaker for the institution, but it's because people are asking for it. People are interested in learning more and in knowing more. So it sort of underscores the need to have more data.
AUSTERMUHLE: Leah Sera, the program's director, says it will evolve as more research on marijuana comes out. But even with the limited research there is out there already, university officials say demand for the program was high. When they announced it over the summer, they got more than 500 applications for 50 seats. They ended up tripling enrollment and say that the inaugural class has students from 32 states and D.C., as well as Hong Kong and Australia. Summer Kriegshauser admits that she's still nervous being part of the University of Maryland's first class for the marijuana master's. There's no certainty that there'll be a job at the end of the program, and legal recreational marijuana could sweep medical programs aside. But she's still confident that she made the right call.
KRIEGSHAUSER: We could have a new president in two years. Additional states could pass other cannabis laws. This means there could be more expansive job opportunities. So to have this knowledge, I think, sets me up for a really good place even though I'm not 100% sure of my career path right now.
AUSTERMUHLE: But for the time being, she's just focused on hitting the books and passing her classes. For NPR News in Washington, I'm Martin Austermuhle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.