North Coast colleges wrestle with cannabis education

An event at SSU this month could be a precursor of classes to come in the burgeoning industry.|

When Sonoma State University co-hosted a cannabis symposium on March 11, it may have opened the door to a future area of study and research for the school as well as other Northern California higher-education institutions.

The course, “Medical Cannabis: A Clinical Focus,” was believed to be the first medical cannabis course offered by a major U.S. university. Almost 100 people attended the six-hour course, which was primarily targeted to health professionals who wanted to learn more on the still-understudied plant.

“We had a really good, engaged crowd,” said Robert Eyler, dean of SSU’s School of Extended and International Education.

The event was such a success that Eyler is planning another event in the fall featuring legal and regulatory issues that go with the multi-billion-dollar crop.

But that activity also opens up a thorny question for scholars and administrators: How do you tackle a subject that remains classified by the federal government as a dangerous drug? Cannabis also still generates resistance, whether from prohibitionist policymakers like Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who recently said medical marijuana “has been hyped, maybe too much,” to federally regulated banks that decline to provide services to burgeoning businesses in the sector.

The 1989 Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act would put at risk crucial federal funding for any campus, especially if officials wanted to have classes on marketing or production of the plant, said Josh Meisel, associate professor of sociology at Humboldt State University in Arcata.

However, Humboldt State has carved out a niche to study the social and economic costs of the drug with its Institute for Interdisciplinary Marijuana Research, which was formed in 2012. Faculty members have studied issues ranging from the public health impacts on rural communities to determining the pesticide amount on the leaf and its production sites.

The institute has received a state grant in the aftermath of passage of Proposition 64, which legalized recreational usage in the state, that will focus on the potential impact of regulations on manufacturing and production, said Meisel, who is co-director of the institute. The report will help provide guidance to state lawmakers as they write rules going forward.

“That’s a very direct impact on public policy,” he said.

Its work also focuses on the local community, especially as Humboldt County is an epicenter of the state’s estimated $7 billion marijuana industry. For example, Humboldt has well-regarded environmental science programs and has had its faculty members study the impact of how cannabis cultivation has affected water levels along North Coast waterways.

“There are multiple streams of research,” he said.

Colorado State University at Pueblo last year launched its Institute of Cannabis Research with more than $1 million in state and local funding, following approval in 2012 of a proposition that legalized recreational use there. Closer to home, UC San Diego has operated the Center for Medicinal Cannabis Research.

Locally, college administrators are keeping an eye on developments. Jerry Miller, Santa Rosa Junior College’s dean of career and technical education and economic development, said he has been approached by some in the marijuana industry who have inquired about having its touted culinary program host a course on cannabis edibles.

Miller and SRJC President Frank Chong have held off on offering such courses given regulatory uncertainty from Washington.

“Cannabis is the next big one. But I don’t think anybody knows. I don’t even think their own industry knows how big this industry can get,” Miller said. “Somebody is going to do it (college courses).”

At Mendocino College, President J. Arturo Reyes said the debate “is a little early” at his campus even though there have been inquiries from those in the cannabis industry, especially as the county is in the heart of the Emerald Triangle growing region.

Oaksterdam University, which touts itself as “America’s first and premier cannabis college,” once had a satellite campus in Sebastopol, but later closed it. The Oakland-based college, which offers horticulture classes as well as those in science and business, has battled federal authorities in the past and was subject to a 2012 IRS raid. Semester tuition for 14 weeks can runs as much as almost $1,600.

For the Sonoma State event, it took about a year to put together after an initial outreach by the school’s department of nursing, said John Malanca, founder of United Patients Group, a San Rafael firm that provides a consulting service for those interested in using medical marijuana. The business has a nonprofit arm that sponsors seminars like the one held at SSU.

“It was a historical event for Sonoma State and they put their reputation on the line,” said Malanca, who noted that the university’s legal office vetted the symposium, which offered attendees continuing education credit. Attendees paid $99 to register, or $165 if they were seeking credit hours. Topics ranged from cannabis interactions with other drugs to the legal implications of use.

Eyler noted the event passed the test. “There’s still a gray line,” he said. “We have to be very, very cautious.”

Higher education can bring validation as well as provide crucial information to the public, he said.

Malanca founded his business after his father-in-law, Stan Rutner, was diagnosed in 2011 with lung cancer that had spread to his brain. He wanted to see if medical cannabis could bring back Rutner’s appetite.

A treatment of low-dose cannabis oil helped Rutner regain his appetite, and his family believes it played a critical role in getting his cancer into remission.

“Right now it’s kind of the Wild West,” Malanca said. “There is just so much misinformation on the web.”

Filling such a void is a perfect role for a university, he added, especially for those in an area so central to the industry.

“A real academic challenge is we already have a well-functioning, full industry that lives in this ?300-mile area between San Rafael and Del Norte County that we have kind of shied away from talking about until now,” Eyler said.

“How do you go from a relatively illegitimate business to one trying to legitimize?”

You can reach Staff Writer Bill Swindell at 707-521-5223 or

Bill Swindell

Business, Beer and Wine, The Press Democrat  

In the North Coast, we are surrounded by hundreds of wineries along with some of the best breweries, cidermakers and distillers. These industries produce an abundance of drinks as well as good stories – and those are what I’m interested in writing. I also keep my eye on our growing cannabis industry and other agricultural crops, which have provided the backbone for our food-and-wine culture for generations.

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