BURLINGTON, Vt. — In the Spring 2016 semester, the UVM Medical School made history as the first to offer a medical-school level course on the pharmacology and physiology of cannabis. On Wednesday, the University, along with the Vermont Phytoscience Institute and Vermont’s medical dispensaries teamed up to kick off a series of free, online courses covering various cannabis topics called “Cannabis: From Botany to Medicine.”

The instructors represent an all-star lineup of the state’s top cannabis researchers who are UVM instructors and researchers, some of whom are also the founders of the Vermont Phytoscience Institute, a for-profit think tank with a focus on scientific research and testing — as well as board members of the Vermont Patients Alliance, one of the state’s four licensed medical marijuana dispensaries.

The courses themselves cover a variety of topics, the first of which was presented by Monique McHenry, Ph.D and titled, “Cannabis Plant Biology.”  McHenry is a botanist with a background in plant diversity and evolution. She is co-founder of the Phytoscience Institute and the Executive Director of Vermont Patients Alliance Inc., the non-profit medical marijuana dispensary and research center and active in legislation and lobbying. She is also the co-director of a Cannabis pharmacology course at the University of Vermont Medical School. 

The hour-long course itself ran smoothly for with 48 attendees viewing the live presentation, which was comprised of viewing the prepared powerpoint slides while simultaneously hearing the presenter in real-time. It included an interactive component where participants could chat with each other, as well as pose questions directly to McHenry, the instructor. There were also snap poll questions where participants were asked questions like, “Are cannabis and hemp the same species?” (yes, although that’s understanding the technical definition of botanical class versus species versus genus).

Starting with background about the history of cannabis — historians believe it has been cultivated since the Neolithic Era, over 10,000 years ago — the first installment also discussed the identification of the cannabis genus itself. Technical at times, the presentation wove between the more relatable topics (the purpose of trichromes on plants, the differences between sativa and indica) and some that required a more complex understanding of botany.

One participant posed a questions about the “folk tale” that physically damaging a plant (stressing it) could increase the THC percentage, another asked about the difference between hybridization of plants and genetic modification of plants. McHenry responded to all questions, even staying on the line a bit longer than the allotted time.

The course concluded with McHenry outlining some of the challenges facing her and other scientific researchers. Those challenges are mainly due to the fact that due to federal prohibition, there are not uniform standards for testing pesticides, heavy metals, or fungus (from mold) that might be in cannabis. Instead, states are making their own standards, which don’t necessarily align with each other. Colorado and Washington both have different standards and have seen products recalled following additional testing.

UVM Program Developer Matt Sayre noted that last year’s webinars, and the spring semester Medical Cannabis course, were helpful to UVM faculty in building future curricula. “Hundreds of people registered,” Sayre said. “UVM used the feedback from those webinars to focus our planning.”

In addition the free speaker series, starting this fall the Department of Pharmacology will be offering online professional certificates, which Sayre said are “focused on medical cannabis to serve learners nation-wide who have a range of different educational needs.”

The next Cannabis Speaker Series course, Cannabis Pharmacology with Karen Lounsbury, PhD takes place Wednesday, June 8 at 12 p.m. Free. Vermont Cannabis: Heady Vermont Watermark

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