orig jr brain on weed
Your brain on marijuana
01:39 - Source: CNN

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With interest growing as access to marijuana increases, professors create classes on the drug

Students learn about law, business, medical applications, botany, biology, chemistry and physiology

CNN  — 

As the first executive director and general manager of the city of Los Angeles’ Department of Cannabis Regulation, Cat Packer will lay the legal foundation for how the United States’ second-largest city handles marijuana. But it wasn’t until three years ago, in her last semester of law school, that she even knew what she wanted to do professionally.

That’s when she took a life-changing law class on marijuana.

“I will admit, before taking the class, I was completely oblivious to the many interesting conversations happening around the country about this subject,” Packer said.

A growing number of students across the United States have taken some of the country’s first marijuana-themed university classes and found nearly instant success with this unique knowledge.

“Think about it: If you graduated from law school 10 years ago, you couldn’t study this, because the reforms hadn’t happened yet,” said Douglas Berman, the Robert J. Watkins/Procter & Gamble Professor of Law and the creator of Packer’s Marijuana Law, Policy & Reform Seminar at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law.

Berman is proud of Packer, but when he started the course in 2013, not all students were as enthusiastic as she. Some said they didn’t enroll out of concern that future employers wouldn’t like it, according to Berman.

As marijuana has become more mainstream, his class now fills quickly. And even if students don’t go into the field like Packer did, with medical marijuana legal in more than half of the United States and recreational pot legal in nine, chances are that what they learn will come in handy.

“And with all that heat in this space on this still controversial topic, I try to emphasize, lawyers should be bringing more light, rather than heat, to these conversations, armed with the facts,” Berman said.

The facts about marijuana are still at the center of the debate, because while states are more permissive, federal law still puts marijuana in the same category as heroin: a Schedule I drug with “no currently accepted medical use,” at least in the eyes of the federal government.

That leaves researchers and universities offering classes in uncharted waters.

Despite the limits, a handful of determined professors have stepped up, without textbooks or well-trod academic territory, and created courses to try to ensure that the next generation is prepared to match the public’s interest. There seems to be only one “weed major,” the medicinal plant chemistry program at Northern Michigan University, but a growing number of weed-themed classes are being offered on campuses across the country in law, business, medicine and general science.

Demand outpaces science

In 2013, the Washington Attorney General’s Office provided Beatriz Carlini, a research scientist at the university’s Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute, with funds to develop training modules for health professionals who can get continuing education credit. They learn about how cannabis works and about its best uses; a second module teaches best clinical practices.

Marijuana is legal in its recreational and medicinal forms in Washington, and with more legal access comes a public desire for more education. But unless your doctor is in his or her late 90s and can remember before 1942, when it was legal to prescribe cannabis, more than likely they learned nothing about its benefits in medical school.

“Hopefully, we can help patients make good decisions,” Carlini said. “People won’t wait for these things to resolve federally.”

Yu-Fung Lin teaches the physiology of cannabis at the UC Davis School of Medicine. Physiology is a branch of biology that looks at the functions of living organisms and their parts.