New class looks to dispel stigmas and stereotypes about cannabis

By Janet Waldman, MS '09 August 24, 2022

Illustration of two people conducting a sale at a legal cannabis store

Cannabis for adult recreational use just became legal in Connecticut a year ago, but history shows people using cannabis and hemp plants for myriad reasons for more than 2,500 years.  

“We have evolved as a species alongside these plants,” says Hillary Haldane, professor of anthropology. Despite that, people still confuse CBD, the non-psychoactive ingredient found in both plants, with THC, the ingredient in cannabis that gets a person “high.” 
 
Haldane has created a 3-credit course, The Anthropology of Cannabis, to explore the facts and history of society’s relationship with those two botanicals. The Spring 2023 course may be of particular interest to health science and social science students as well as students who plan to seek jobs in the ever-growing cannabis industry.  
 
Several Quinnipiac alumni currently make their living in cannabis-related businesses. One of them, Stephen Goldner, JD ’82, was among the first to recognize the therapeutic potential of CBD in 2016 when he founded two Michigan-based companies: Pure Green Pharmaceuticals and Pure Green. The former performs research and development and runs clinical trials seeking Food and Drug Administration approval for several CBD products, while the latter produces and sells a variety of cannabis products.  
 
Many users of CBD (cannabidiol) topicals and oils say the products alleviate symptoms of osteoarthritis, sports injuries and help with anxiety and sleep, among other things –— all without the side effects inherent in ibuprofen and other pain-relieving drugs. CBD is legal in all 50 states and sold in chain stores, convenience stores and boutiques in various forms, from tinctures to edible gummies and topicals. It also can be vaped. 
 
CBD won’t get a person “high” like THC (tetrahydrocannabinol). Both compounds are derived from different parts of the cannabis plant, although CBD can be extracted from hemp plants as well. Dispensaries selling products containing THC are set to open later this year in Connecticut, a decade after medical marijuana was first sold in the state. 

“I hope I can play a part in destigmatizing the use of cannabis,” Haldane says. “There are so many botanicals that humans have used through the ages, whether for menstrual cramps, healing ceremonies and funeral rites … Cannabis is an interesting lens on culture and on us.” 

As a social scientist, Haldane strives to provide curriculum that helps students understand the world they live in and imagine the world they want. “I feel that cannabis fits right in — where did it come from, how has it been used and where is it going. I want them to imagine the possibilities,” she says. And if they happen to land in the industry, Haldane thinks they should understand the science of what they are selling. 
 
She also wants to explore and hopefully dispel what she calls “fear-factor myths” about cannabis that took root in the 1960s, launched the war on drugs in the 1970s and linger to this day. One example is the 1936 movie, “Reefer Madness,” an anti-marijuana propaganda film the class will watch together. 
 
Watch the “Reefer Madness" trailer 
 
“As a species, we don’t undo those fear-factor myths easily. How much regarding botanicals has been about myth making, and whose benefits have those myths served?” she asks.  
 
Haldane wants students to realize the “noxious way that previous generations represented who did drugs and who sold drugs and how it damaged our country from a racial perspective,” she says, explaining that Black and brown people have suffered significantly more consequences than others over the years.  
 
“Racism has long been used as a means to police the behavior of Black and brown people, even though plenty of white people are the customers,” she notes, emphasizing that expunging criminal records does not make up for years spent in the penal system in relation to a drug being legalized in more and more states.  
 
“I also want students to be thinking about the social, political and cultural perspectives … such as who can open a dispensary and in what neighborhood.” Haldane explained that few of the people who have sold drugs illegally stand to benefit from legalization because they rarely have the capital to own dispensaries, let alone, acquire one of the limited number of state licenses.  
 
In the 1980s, former first lady Nancy Reagan launched her “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign. It tended to lump cannabis into the same category as opioids, which have a much greater potential for abuse. “And today, we are still talking about cannabis as something that is going to make addicts of our children,” Haldane says.  
 
It’s also worth noting that Big Alcohol benefited from criminalization of cannabis over the years and now will compete with it as people integrate cannabis into their lives.  
 
And there are gender implications as well as more jobs in the industry become available. Haldane wonders whether society is ready to accept the roles women and especially mothers may play in the cannabis industry. “If someone is a mother, can she also be a dispensary owner? We always penalize mothers more than fathers,” she says. “We see women who are bartenders, who own vineyards and sell wine. Eventually we will accept them working in dispensaries,” she predicts. 
 
Haldane is excited to be teaching this class at the cusp of legalization in many states. “We are at a moment where students are literally observing the cultural evolution of cannabis around them. It’s not something I’m teaching them from the past, but rather we are in the middle of it, and they will have to figure it out.” 

 

Research is sorely needed 

It is estimated that more than 150 million people regularly smoke cannabis, making it one of the world’s most popular recreational drugs. A Gallup poll in July 2021 found that 49% of American adults say they have tried marijuana, up from 45% in 2017 and 2019. Just over 50 years ago, only 4% of American adults said they had tried it.  
 
Recreational marijuana is legal to buy in 19 states and the District of Columbia, and medical marijuana patients can purchase cannabis products in 38 states.  
 
People are purchasing cannabis and CBD for recreational use without knowing the long-term effects on their bodies because neither drug is regulated by the FDA. However, the FDA has approved one CBD-based formulary to treat epileptic seizures.  
 
Haldane pointed out that the knowledge around cannabis is so far behind where consumers are. “We have not supported academic research in accordance with something humans have been using forever,” Haldane says, shaking her head. “The power of prohibition is that it stifles research and the ability of science to do its job as well as social science to understand the relationship of botanicals to human life.” 
 
That lack of research also keeps physicians and other healthcare professionals in the dark about whether CBD and cannabis could help their patients, or even, how the drugs potentially interact with common pharmaceuticals prescribed to treat blood pressure, heart conditions and other medical issues. 
 
Surveys show that Americans are becoming more comfortable with the legalization of cannabis as conversations take place about the anecdotal health benefits. Haldane puts hemp seeds on her breakfast every day for their nutritional value. “The hemp plant has nurtured society for thousands of years, aiding in the making of rope, rugs and oils,” she observes. 
 
“I don’t want students to know if I am pro-pot or anti-pot. I just want to present as many facts as possible in this course,” she says. 

 

Jobs in this budding industry 

The cannabis business supports a variety of careers, from pharmaceutical sales and dispensary positions to jobs in chemistry, engineering, marketing, accounting, advertising, IT, finance, data analytics and regulatory affairs. 
 
Goldner, the Quinnipiac law alumnus, jumped into the cannabis business when he launched his two companies in 2016. That was the same year he addressed the United Nations General Assembly, advocating the shift from incarceration to medication and from eradication to education. 
 
“Six years ago, I realized there were dozens of active ingredients in cannabis, and nobody was talking about CBD then — just THC — and I knew it was only a matter of time before the other active ingredients in the cannabis plant that can’t get you stoned might be useful,” he says. 
 
He confirms there are “a huge number of business opportunities in the cannabis industry that have nothing to do with growing the plant.” 
 
Goldner was a forensic toxicologist in the 1970s when he co-invented a liquid form of methadone to help patients withdraw from heroin. Later, he befriended a Vietnam war veteran who reduced his PTSD symptoms with cannabis and that sparked Goldner’s determination to use the plant’s ingredients to help people.  
 
He explained that CBD interacts with the body’s endocannabinoid system, which is involved in a variety of processes, including pain, memory, mood, appetite, stress, sleep, metabolism and immune functions. CBD is a known anti-inflammatory, and scientists are studying whether it can also be useful in helping those withdrawing from opioids.  
 
Pure Green began by producing and selling CBD-based tablets created in its lab and sold in licensed dispensaries to Michigan patients seeking help for pain relief, a good night’s sleep or just to relax. “We learned valuable clinical data and made some money, and now we are taking some of these formulas through FDA clinical trials,” Goldner says.  
 
One of the PG Pharmaceuticals formulas has been shown to help diabetics with a painful and common complication of diabetes that causes nerve damage. For the first trial, 32 patients in Michigan suffering from diabetic neuropathy took a tablet containing 20 mg of CBD sublingually (under the tongue) three times a day for three weeks. Goldner said the pain relief they reported was clinically significant.  
 
“We ran a second one, and it yielded even better results,” he says. Both clinical trials have been reported in the 2020 and 2021 Journal of Diabetes & Metabolism. A third trial will begin in September, and PGP is in talks with the National Institutes of Health about a clinical trial partnership.  
 
“Once approved, this drug would serve a huge patient population around the world,” he notes. 
 
Goldner’s first cannabis company, Pure Green, is now one of Michigan’s largest cannabis companies. PG extracts cannabis from greenhouse plants to produce edibles and oils along with the flower that it sells to dispensaries for recreational use.  
 
Besides overseeing those companies, Goldner serves as CEO of Regulatory Affairs Associates, an FDA consulting company that acts as an adviser to the NIH and many drug companies.  
 
Goldner shared that PGP is currently doing research on some of the lesser-known cannabis molecules — “other phytocannabinoids that everyone will be talking about in three years.” These molecules could be used to treat nausea, wasting syndrome and insomnia, he says.  
 
FDA approval creates massive economic implications for development companies, Goldner remarks. He tells the story of GW Pharmaceuticals, a British company that developed Epidiolex, a CBD medication for children with epileptic seizures. The medication is the only CBD formula to be approved by the FDA to date. Last year, GW was bought for $7.6 billion by Jazz Pharmaceuticals. 
 
Like Goldner, RJ Falcioni ’08 visualized opportunities in the cannabis industry years ago. Today, he is CEO of Outspoke, a San Francisco-based company he co-founded in 2018. Outspoke is a web-based application that leverages cannabis compliance data to deliver automated supply chain transparency and business intelligence to the licensed THC market. 
 
After graduating from QU with a bachelor’s degree in legal studies, Falcioni earned his Juris Doctor from New York Law School in 2011. He interned with a California dispensary that later led to various roles within the industry, including cultivation manager of facilities in Colorado and California and several C-level positions for both plant-touching and cannabis-specific technology businesses.  
 
At Outspoke, Falcioni oversees strategic development and implementation, sales and marketing. He also hosts the “I’m with RJ” podcast, highlighting trends in emerging industries and markets.  
 
“A major trend we are seeing is the need for transparency and sharing of information across supply chain partners,” he says. “The current struggles facing many supply chains and individual operators can be traced to a lack of process and lack of demand-based decision making, a problem plaguing businesses of all sizes and maturity.”  
 
While Falcioni predicts growth for the cannabis industry, he has observed that many companies lack the necessary technology tools to succeed as the market evolves. “We see many operators who fail to place proper weight on tech adoption, and this will make it challenging for them to stay afloat,” he predicts. 
 
Haldane plans to invite both Goldner and Falcioni to speak to students about their experiences navigating the waters as early explorers of the cannabis industry. “I’d like to know what it’s been like being on the front line,” she says, “and what did they learn in college or wish they had learned that would be valuable in what they are doing now, and what information gaps exist.” 
 
Haldane thinks society’s use of cannabis will be normalized in the future, comparing it to alcohol’s popularity after prohibition.  
 
“The power of history is to show us that we are not in a unique moment, but instead there is a new item around which we are having these expressions of fear and morality,” she says. 

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