University of the Sciences launches MBA in medical cannabis, said to be first of its kind

In this Friday, March 22, 2019 photo, Paige Dellafave-DeRosa, a processing supervisor at Compassionate Care Foundation's medical marijuana dispensary in Egg Harbor Township, N.J., sorts marijuana buds. (Julio Cortez/AP Photo)

In this Friday, March 22, 2019 photo, Paige Dellafave-DeRosa, a processing supervisor at Compassionate Care Foundation's medical marijuana dispensary in Egg Harbor Township, N.J., sorts marijuana buds. (Julio Cortez/AP Photo)

For those trying to break into the burgeoning medical cannabis industry, there’s a lot to learn about laws, sales, and the daily ins-and-outs of building a business. 

Philadelphia’s University of the Sciences has consolidated some of that knowledge into a new MBA track, which the school says is a first of its kind. 

The program arose, in part, from a recent meeting of CannaGather, a community of entrepreneurs and other professionals in the cannabis industry, where conversation turned to the lack of options for specialized business training. Many people running dispensaries or grower-processors were learning through informal networking, or trial and error on the job. 

At that gathering was Andrew Peterson, executive director of the Substance Use Disorders Institute at University of the Sciences. He had heard similar things before, from health care practitioners who took USciences’ existing certification course for becoming a medical cannabis recommender or dispenser in Pennsylvania. 

“Some of the pharmacists, they thought they would be just dispensing cannabis,” he said. “But once they get in there, they realize they are now managers of personnel, supply chain managers, they’ve got to detail with security — and all those business things that they didn’t realize.” 

Peterson teamed up with Erica Waldorf, assistant director of the USciences’ master of business administration program, to create the school’s Cannabis Industry Option. It is a track under the pharmaceutical and health care MBA, which is online with occasional visits to campus. 

The program is admitting students through Dec. 1, to start courses in spring 2020.

As of now, the cannabis curriculum includes four courses: an introduction to the medical cannabis industry; finance and regulation (both federal and state-by-state); marketing and sales; and a project-based class in which students will work on creating a business plan or bringing a product to market. 

There are other universities with cannabis-focused curriculums around the country. Northern Michigan University offers an undergraduate degree in medical plant chemistry, and the University of Maryland has an MS program in medical cannabis science and therapeutics. Closer to home, Stockton University in New Jersey has an undergraduate minor in cannabis studies, and Harrisburg Area Community College offers a certificate in medical cannabis business

However, none of those programs delve into “the business side at the graduate level, like we do,” Peterson said.  

Changing with the times

According to Peterson, the MBA program’s content will have to be updated as regulations and trends change in real time. “It will continue to evolve, and we suspect that over the next couple of years, we are going to be adding more coursework,” he said. 

For instance, under federal law, cannabis is still a Schedule I drug, the category reserved for substances with high potential for abuse and low medical value. But many anticipate that it will be rescheduled in the coming years, which would likely move medical cannabis from its current supply chain into the traditional pharmaceutical supply chain. That would also open the door to more biomedical research on the drug. 

Students in USciences’ cannabis MBA track would be well situated for that change, Waldorf said. They will “have opportunity to take courses in pharmaceutical research and development, and FDA regulations of pharmaceuticals,” she said. “We do see that, in the future, these two industries are going to be very closely related.”  

The USciences curriculum will also cover industrial hemp, which was legalized in last winter’s farm bill. But Peterson said it will stay away from recreational cannabis, which remains controversial and “has all of the politics and emotions that go along with it.” 

If recreational cannabis does get legalized in the region, Peterson said, he feels it will be important to keep the medical and recreational industries distinct, to ensure medical oversight and continued access to accurate and responsible care. 

For now, he said, the program’s focus is going to be “from the perspective of health care.” 

A missed opportunity?

Tauhid Chappell, a medical marijuana patient and founder of the Color of Cannabis Conference in Philadelphia, said that while it is exciting to see new educational programs about cannabis, it’s concerning that many, including the one at USciences, don’t excavate the social and political history of the drug.

“This is a missed opportunity to address the elephant in the room: that cannabis was intentionally made illegal to harm black and brown communities, and those with privilege and/or money are capitalizing off legalization,” said Chappell, who is an executive board member of the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists. 

An increasingly visible argument surrounding legal cannabis is that the industry has a role to play in reparations

Advocates argue that as cannabis operations become mainstream and professionalized, profits need to go toward poor and minority communities that have been ravaged by the country’s war on drugs

Despite roughly equal usage rates, black people are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than white people. 

“That’s an injustice that needs to be hammered home in every cannabis program, regardless of the school,” Chappell said. “This kind of knowledge can bring a necessary level of sympathy, sensitivity and awareness for cannabis workers, especially those who interact with patients, consumers, and other workers of color in the industry.”  

Peterson said that while addressing reparations is not within USciences’ program or course objectives, he is sure the topic will come up in discussions. 

However, he added, “we do not have specific plans for recruiting from communities that have been harmed.” 

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