Catrena Almonte has always wanted to help veterans.
As an Army National Guard chaplain, she provided religious counseling and care to soldiers and often supported them as they dealt with mental illnesses, like PTSD. But, as her time as a chaplain progressed and she saw the effects of PTSD on her fellow soldiers, she began searching for a new way to help treat the illness.
She read medical study after medical study to see if any treatment worked, and the treatment that kept rising to the top was cannabis.
But cannabis use in the military is prohibited under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and cannabis is still illegal under federal law, despite the substance being legal for medicinal use in all but seven states, with six additional states authorizing only CBD oil for medicinal use.
“I kept reading these studies about how well cannabis treats PTSD,” Almonte said. “As I learned more, I knew I’d have to leave the military and look for work in the cannabis industry.”
As Almonte looked for opportunities, she came across a master’s program at the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy that launched in June 2019. The school’s Master of Science in Medical Cannabis Science and Therapeutics was welcoming admissions to its inaugural class.
She applied, and along with about 150 other students, was accepted into the country’s first 30-credit master’s program fully dedicated to the medical study of cannabis.
The MCST program focuses on providing its students with a scientific knowledge of the cannabis plant. Though students do not ever handle cannabis, the program is designed to teach students how the plant reacts within the body and how a person may react to the plant.
Students also study the medical evidence for the use of cannabis to treat different medical conditions and the policies and regulations that guide where and how people can legally use the plant.
“We want to prepare our students to go out and be lifelong learners at the cutting edge of the field,” said Leah Sera, the MCST program’s director and associate professor at UMSOP.
The program was conceived as the cannabis industry was gaining momentum in the United States to fill a need UMSOP dean Natalie Eddington saw within the health industry: Professionals did not know enough about cannabis to advise patients on its potential efficacy within their lives.
Instead of offering a mandatory course or elective on cannabis through the School of Pharmacy, the institution decided to offer a full, two-year program so that it could attract students outside of a traditional medical background. Students come into the program from a diverse set of backgrounds, like entrepreneurship, law and education – and yes, medicine – with the hope that they will then take what they learned through MCST and influence their own fields.
Sera hopes that as students continue through the program they will have the tools needed to effect policy change to make cannabis research more accessible.
Currently, cannabis is classified as a Schedule 1 Substance, defined by the Drug Enforcement Administration as “drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.” Because of this classification, Sera said, it is extremely difficult to obtain permission to use cannabis for research purposes.
Additionally, if a researcher wanted to obtain cannabis for a scientific study, only one facility in the country had been authorized to provide the drug through a contract with the National Institute on Drug Abuse. In a landmark move in May of this year, the DEA began working with other facilities to expand research access to cannabis.
Advocacy within the cannabis industry also means bringing women, people of color and young people into the fold and offering them leadership roles, said Almonte.
“I want them to level the playing field,” Almonte said. “The cannabis industry is tilted too much toward cannabis veterans. I believe there’s enough space in the industry to widen the gates.”
Almonte became the MCST program’s first ambassador, a position created to help incoming and prospective students learn about the program from a current student’s perspective. Talking with those students helped Almonte realize how much the program had taught her and solidified her desire to help veterans with PTSD seek cannabis treatment.
Currently, Almonte is a doctoral student in the clinical psychology program at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology, D.C. campus, and an adjunct professor teaching a class on medical marijuana at the Olive-Harvey College, a part of the City Colleges of Chicago. She has started a cannabis science company and is also working on a book and television pilots about cannabis education.
Since its inaugural class, the MCST program has admitted 250 students to its second cohort, and in a few short weeks, will welcome 250 more to its third, a sign of the continued demand for cannabis education, something that is not lost on the program’s director.
“Our program’s existence really legitimizes this plant as medicine,” Sera said.