Interview Conducted by Jason S. Lupoi, Ph.D.
We live in an age where information is readily at your fingertips. The trouble is that information is not always trustworthy, valuable, or worth your time. Consider, for example, that a study out of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) reported that false news traveled six times faster  than the truth. “[F]alsehood diffuses significantly farther, faster, deeper, and more broadly than the truth in all categories of information, and in many cases by an order of magnitude,” said Sinan Aral, a professor at MIT and a co-author on the study reported. (Not surprisingly, the study highlighted that the spread of false news was worse for political news that other news categories.) When lies fly, we lose.
We’ve endured enough misinformation about cannabis to last to the end of time. After all, there are many millions of people who currently or will soon utilize cannabis to find harmony, happiness, health, and hope in their lives, at least in some better sense than they might now have. Although cannabis cultivation is ancient, there’s much that we are still unearthing regarding the plant’s genetics, its physiological and mental effects, its medical merit, what it is and what it is not. With Reefer Madness propaganda screaming much louder at us for much of the recent past, drowning out voices of science and reason that were there, just buried, it’s important that cannabis education be accurate, trustworthy, and available for those seeking higher education at the collegiate level.
I recently spoke with Everette Freeman, retired president of the Community College of Denver, who saw the need to more quickly professionalize the industry such that it is standardized, and so potential employers could identify passionate, degreed employees with a head for cannabis science and business.
Everette has spent over 20 years of his life working with universities. In 2013, he was the president of Albany State University in Albany, Georgia but he was looking for a presidency elsewhere after his wife died unexpectedly. A former boss at the University of Indianapolis told Everette about a presidential position at the Community College of Denver. Ultimately, Everette won the position, and moved to Colorado in October of 2013. Being in Colorado, it was hard not the notice the cannabis industry.
“I had followed the legalization of cannabis for some time,” Everette recounted. “I saw different states try with mixed results. When I came to Colorado, my mind became attuned to the availability of cannabis. It’s very important for me to express that I see cannabis as a wellness issue and not as a lifestyle issue. Many people were addressing wellness issues and not just wanting to get high.” Everette pointed to veterans as an example.
In January of 2014, “recreational” cannabis was approved in Colorado. “I thought it was imperative to help the industry professionalize,” Everette remembered. “It was my beginning and continuing impetus. Every industry has professionalized. Originally, barbers were the surgeons. They hung rags that were white and stained with blood which is where we get the trademark barber pole. The emerging medical community of the day wasn’t about to have barbers be surgeons, so they needed to professionalize.”
Andrew Freedman, Colorado’s first cannabis czar under Governor Hickenlooper, and Everette met about their mutual interest in professionalizing the cannabis industry with the legalization. “Freedman was concerned with regulatory matters, such as weights and measures, but also in helping Colorado become the model for how the cannabis industry should conduct itself nationwide and thought professionalizing the industry was needed,” Everette added. The new chancellor supported this measure as well.
The role of the community college is to be involved in the community, and in Everette’s community, scores of people were turning to cannabis for its wellness potential. Everette began to talk to cannabis icon and champion Alice O’Leary Randall whose husband Robert, in 1976, was the first person in the United States to receive medical cannabis from the federal government for treatment of his glaucoma. Everette wanted to create non-credit programs on the availability and use of cannabis for wellness purposes, and Mrs. Randall eagerly came to Colorado to be involved in the program. Everette said that, by 2016, Colorado dentists were eager to learn about potential deleterious effects of cannabis on teeth and gums. “There was some mythology there and so, our dental hygiene program faculty were happy to share their knowledge and expertise” he added. “The thing was, though, that the medical folks wanted to participate, and they were crowding out the dentists!”
One limitation in building the program was that the policy of the Colorado Community College System was to not get involved in cannabis due to its federal illegality which could jeopardize federal higher education funding. “We could not develop a full-blown cannabis program, but we were able to develop workshops,” Everette explained.
The new chancellor of the Community College system was the former Colorado Lieutenant Governor, who was acting Lieutenant Governor when cannabis was legalized. Everette met with the National Cannabis Industry Association and asked them to help design the curriculum. Dustin Mahon (who introduced me to Everette), Dr. Joe D. Goldstrich, a retired Iowa cardiologist and cannabis expert, and several others helped form a cannabis policy committee. They surveyed the industry to design the program and subsequently got a program in cannabis business approved where students could earn an Associates in Applied Sciences (AAS) degree with 60 credits. The Community College of Denver also created a Bachelor’s in Applied Sciences (BAS) degree for cannabis science and regulations where the AAS degree was a prerequisite, and the total program entailed 120 credits including microbiology, botany, extraction, and cannabis quality control. The students at the Community College of Denver do not handle cannabis itself; rather, the school chose to use hemp as a suitable proxy.
Everette humbly said that the key players in creating the program were industry professionals, such as an extraction group that manufacturers extracts, oils, and creams who wanted to be involved in creating more educated workers for their own benefit. Having a hand in designing the desired training could mean productive employees in the future and industry jobs for graduates of the program, a win-win situation.
I was curious if all of this was a hard sell for Everette to his colleagues.
“The major hoop was that federal funding would be jeopardized,” he answered. “This is not unfounded but I didn’t share the fear. The Community College system is made up of 13 schools. The chancellor oversees all of them and the previous chancellor was concerned over the legal risks. At her direction, I stopped developing the degree program, and focused on the workshops.”
Thankfully, Everette and his team were able to continue the journey and bring the degrees into reality. “We are the only community college that I know of that’s offering degree-granting cannabis programs.”
So, who are the people choosing to enroll in these programs? The Community College of Denver is considered a “Hispanic-serving” institution, and to qualify for that label, at least 25% of the enrolled students must be Hispanic or Latino. Everette reported that the average students enrolled in the cannabis programs are women, approximately 27 years of age, and increasingly women of color. “The primary students in the program are people with some interest in science,” Everette added. “Maybe they struggle to pass anatomy and physiology, but they still want to pursue a scientific degree. They may not end up as a physician assistant or a nurse, but they can still get involved.”
I asked Everette how the school solicited teachers to educate the students and what qualifications were required, especially since much of what is known about cannabis comes from outside of traditional academia.
“The teachers come from experts in the cannabis industry as well as chemists, biologists, and biochemists already on the faculty coupled with scientists working in the field,” Everette explained. “On the extraction side, we brought Master’s and PhD professionals onboard to serve as adjunct faculty. Teachers that work within the industry are provided the title of ‘faculty in the practice of x field’.”
As our conversation came to a close, I wanted to get Everette’s opinion on what is lacking in cannabis education at the collegiate level, as well as educating the general public.
“On the science side, there ought to be general introductory science courses referencing the endocannabinoid system so that people aren’t afraid of the word cannabis,” he advocated. “Also, if I could wave a magic wand, I would seek education for veterans. Oftentimes, when they come to the campuses, they can feel put off and alone because they see little that they can relate to.
“I’m also eager to see programs that allow for students with BAS degrees in nursing to get certified in cannabis education in addition to physician assistants, social workers, and medical professionals involved in mental health.”
To that end, Everette suggested a national association of cannabis professionals that puts its emphasis on wellness, making certain that both medical practitioners and scientists are members of the association to ensure that national professionalization is achieved and properly integrated into the medical and recreational communities as a whole.
Lastly, Everette had sound advice for the general way we speak about cannabis, such that we can further distance ourselves from decades of deleterious Reefer Madness propaganda. “We need to get away from using the word ‘marijuana,’” he advised. “That word was chosen for racial purposes. I use the word “cannabis” because that’s the scientific word, and I want to honor the science that corresponds to the plant.”
Amen to that.
Reference Vosoughi S, Roy D, Aral S. The spread of true and false news online. Science. 2018;359(6380):1146-1151. [journal impact factor = 47.728; times cited = 3107]