Meet the professor teaching University of Michigan's first course on cannabis

PharmSci 420 is taught at U-M's College of Pharmacy

Gus Rosania (Credit: University of Michigan)

ANN ARBOR – Gus Rosania has a long history at the University of Michigan. His time there began in 2001, when he first came to Ann Arbor to be an assistant professor.

Since then, he rose through the ranks, becoming a distinguished drug toxicity expert and tenured professor in the university's College of Pharmacy.

His interest in cannabis began more than a decade ago.

"What ultimately led me to switch to cannabis was the realization that I’m reaching a point in my career where I’m no longer the youngest person in the faculty, and I wanted my research to have a real world impact," said Rosania.

"I reached a point where I had done all this scholarship and I realized that my students and the students of my students will eventually change things and turn things around," said Rosania. "For my own life and that of my family and my kids, I had to do something. Because I’m going to be 65 sooner or later and I’m going to be needing all these drugs and I know how bad they are."

Cannabis was declared an illegal Schedule 1 substance in the 1930s.

"To give you an idea, there were not even antibiotics then, DNA wasn’t even known -- the structure wasn’t figured out until the 1950s," he said. According to Rosania, the declaration was a political move and had no scientific basis. 

Photo: Wikimedia Commons


PharmSci 420

He first came up with the idea for his class PharmSci 420 in 2008 when the medicinal law passed in Michigan. Around this time, he began pushing for research given that more than 300,000 patients registered for medical cannabis use in the state.

"I thought, 'OK, we have to start teaching people about what this medicinal substance is.' Somebody had to say, ‘What is this all about? Is it as safe as people think it is? Or is it as effective?'"

"What ultimately catalyzed the change was a student organization from the Ross Business School called Green Wolverine," he said. "I went to a conference that they had organized on a Sunday afternoon in December of 2017. The speakers were outstanding and I was really impressed that there were so many people in the auditorium. I realized there’s a huge demand for serious scholarship and for education in this area, and we’re not doing our students a favor by not teaching this course. We have to teach the course."

PharmSci 420 would take another year from that event to materialize, bolstered by the passing of Michigan's Proposal 1 and the federal Farm Bill approving hemp, and the first FDA approved cannabis-derived prescription drug hitting the market.

"It would have put the university in a hard position to say no," he said. "It would have really curtailed academic freedom. Everybody was essentially behind me in doing this. That facilitated the course and made the course possible."

Currently in its first semester, the comprehensive course examines cannabis from a scientific, fact-based approach. It also only studies synthetic, legal versions of cannabis. "You take the molecules present in cannabis and then you make them synthetically, which are legal, but if it comes from the plant, it’s completely illegal," said Rosania. "So we teach about those legal molecules.

“Its (also) the first course that’s also totally devoted to one drug. That’s a big deal because even in pharmacy schools, there’s no course devoted to one drug -- and this drug is a non-drug!"

Cannabis (Photo: Pixabay)

Rosania said he tries to cover all disciplines surrounding cannabis, from medical and legal to social and political, and answering questions like, "Why are we so draconian about this plant?" and "What facilitated state legalizations despite federal prohibition?" 

Doctors with Michigan Medicine have been guest speakers and have given testimonials about benefits of cannabis outweighing those of opioids in their patients. The course considers the chemistry, biology, genetics and cultivation of the plant. Local cannabis entrepreneurs have spoken about the challenges of the industry. Also in the fold? Law enforcement. 

"We've had people from the Ann Arbor Police Department, prosecuting attorneys from the city and a drug recognition expert at Ann Arbor Police Department," he said.

As for being a popular class, the proof is in the numbers. "The attendance was really good," he said. "We had forty-some students who registered and the attendance rate on average was around 85%, which for U of M is really good."

But Rosania is not without his critics. "I get pushback every single day," he said. "Because people have a lot of conflicting interests. There’s a lot of money in pharmaceutical and there’s also this reliance on federal funding and that’s tied in with politics. A lot of these people just haven’t caught on with what’s going on with the world.

"They’re at the point in their careers where they’re thinking about retirement and they’re just not willing to take a step back and learn something new. That’s not the case for younger people. My role is to teach young people so I’m an advocate for the students. But that doesn’t mean that the university is entirely on board."

Hash Bash involvement

Rosania spoke at Hash Bash for the first time in 2018, becoming the first University of Michigan professor to do so. When the organizers of the event first approached him, a hesitant Rosania wasn't sure what to advocate for, but it quickly became clear to him: Research.

Gus Rosania speaks at Hash Bash on April 7, 2018 (Photo: Meredith Bruckner)

"I decided I was going to do it and it was the right thing to do," he said. "I just felt it in my heart and as a drug toxicity researcher and somebody who realizes the mess that we’re in, I just had to do it for myself, my kids, my family, my students. There’s something a lot more important than money, which is the bottom line. Humanity… that’s what’s at stake and that’s ultimately what I’m advocating for."

"(The truth is), I am prohibited from doing research on cannabis to this day, even though it’s been legalized federally," he said. "The federal government legally allows us to do research, yet still, we’re not allowed to do research at this university."

Rosania will be speaking again at this year's event, the first Hash Bash under legalization, and he's feeling a bit more comfortable. Part of the reason for this is that U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell will also be speaking at the event and advocating for more research -- a first for an elected official on a federal level.

As for his address this year, he will be emphasizing the need for fairer cannabis regulations. "Regulatory agencies and lawmakers have to get educators involved and they have to get doctors involved -- not (just) doctors who are against cannabis because they’ve been funded by the National Institute of Drug Abuse -- but doctors who actually either recommend cannabis or who are treating patients with cannabis."

To learn more about PharmSci 420, click here.

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