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Confessions Of A Cannabis Professor

Academia is one of the last places on earth where one can expect innovation on the subject of marijuana. Still, this Spring, Sonoma State University (SSU) in Rohnert Park is going out on a limb and is offering a series of seminars titled “Cannabis in California.” According to the website for SSU’s School of Extended and International Education the series was “designed to provide professionals with a deeper understanding of current issues as California starts to see an expansion of the business of cannabis.”

It’s sorta expanding, though not in the way the state of California has imagined. Only 1% of California growers have applied for permits. SSU might have jumped the cannabis gun. Still, the series on campus is aimed at “attorneys, accountants, cultivators, regulators, doctors, nurses, students, entrepreneurs, wine industry professionals, dispensary owners, industry organizations and non-profits, packaging and supply manufacturers, testing and lab services.”

That list is certainly thorough, though it does not explicitly include people who use marijuana medicinally and recreationally. They, too, would benefit from a seminar. The SSU series, which began with a lecture by Dr. Jeffrey Hergenrather on the “medical use of cannabis,” was a departure for the university, which had for decades ignored cannabis as a field of study.

Dr. Robert Eyler, the Dean of the School of Extended and International Education, came up with the idea for the series, along with Jason Snyder, a cannabis entrepreneur with experience in cultivation. Bill Silver, the former dean of the SSU School of Business and Economics, also had a hand in the planning. Silver has since become the CEO at CannaCraft, one of the largest manufacturers of cannabis products in northern California. The former CEO, Robert Hunter, was a convicted felon who served five-years in prison for cultivation of cannabis. The company needed a facelift.

Dr. Eyler made it clear that the School of Extended and International Education would not offer any classes “that pertain to the cultivation, distribution or retail of cannabis.” He added that “as a recipient of federal funds, SSU is required under federal law to maintain a drug-free community, prevent illegal drug use and discipline students and employees who unlawfully possess, use, or distribute illegal drugs on University property or at University-sponsored activities.

No one will get stoned at the series, at least not publicly.

Professor Eyler thinks that no other university in the U.S. offers a similar series about cannabis. That could be, though last year Northern Michigan University launched a marijuana program for undergraduates. “This is not an easy program,” Professor Brandon Canfield said of the medicinal plant chemistry Bachelor of Science degree. “It’s a really intense, biology chemistry program.”

SSU provides a natural academic setting for cannabis that Northern Michigan University can’t rival. After all, Sonoma County is a major center, not only for the cultivation of cannabis, but also for the manufacture of cannabis products, including tinctures, oils, edibles and topicals. It’s also just South of the Emerald Triangle, where hundreds of acres of cannabis are grown indoors and outdoors, and just North of the San Francisco Bay Area, which boasts excellent dispensaries and a large population of cannabis consumers.

For much of my SSU career, I was the chair of the communication studies department, though I also taught in the English Department and in a program designed for freshmen called “First Year Experience” in which students lived together in the residence halls and studied together for a year. In the absence of any formal university education for students on the subject of cannabis, I stepped into the breach and talked openly about a taboo subject. I met students who grew pot in Mendocino and Humboldt during the summer to pay for their education. I also befriended a man I’ll call “Mr. M.” who worked for a Sonoma County agency and counseled students who had been arrested for possession of marijuana.

“The students who were busted for possession of marijuana were in a court diversion services program,” he told me. “If they completed it, the arrest was supposed to be expunged from their records. Some were irritated by the whole process, especially by the fact that they had to be tested for drugs every week.”

Mr. M. added, “It was a very different time. There was a lot of fear around the use of cannabis. I never would drive with it in my car. I didn’t want to go to jail.” Mr. M is currently writing a book about health and wellness, with emphasis on diet and nutrition.

When I arrived at SSU in 1981, I had just published two marijuana articles that appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle. One was about David Harris, the former student body president at Stanford who had written a novel titled The Last Scam that’s about an American marijuana smuggler in Mexico. The other article was a profile of the town of Willits in Mendocino County. The title of that piece was “In The Heart of Home Grown.”

You could say that I “outed” the town, which was trying to pretend that there was no marijuana anywhere in or near Willits. Merchants in Willits took marijuana dollars hand over fist and then turned around and acted innocent.

“What marijuana? Not here!” I heard those phrases repeatedly.

As a faculty member, I did not initially advertise my connections to cannabis. But after I created the characters and the plot for Homegrownand after the movie was released in theaters, I could no longer honestly stay in the cannabis closet. For the first time I understood the phrase “plausible deniability.” I no longer had it, if I ever did. I tried a couple of times to persuade students that while I wrote the story for Homegrown I did not have any direct experience with cannabis. They did not believe me. From then on, I embrace my own cannabis past. On campus, I wore a black hat with a green marijuana leaf (a movie promotional) and on one wall of my office I taped a huge poster for the movie.

At the start of the semester that Homegrown was released, the president of the college, Ruben Arminana, lauded me as well as the picture, before a gathering of the entire faculty. So, I became bolder and bolder.

One day before a group of freshmen, I began the class by saying, “Hey, I wanna tell you, I smoke marijuana.” One student raised his hand and asked, “Are you stoned now?” I wasn’t and said “No.” Another hand went up, this one from a woman who opened her purse and took out a joint. “Well, would you like to get stoned now?” she asked.

From then on, I received invitations from students to smoke pot, though I never did get stoned with students, and not with fellow faculty members either.

I believe marijuana helped me write books, articles and lectures. I usually found that it enabled me to focus for hours, though one of my brothers, who was a psychiatrist and who prescribed anti-anxiety and anti-depression medicine for his patients, argued that I would have been more productive if I had not smoked pot. For the record, I have published 15 books. Would I have published 30 if I had not been stoned? I don’t think so.

At about the same time that I told students about my use of cannabis, I conducted a cannabis experiment on myself with a Santa Rosa psychiatrist I’ll call “Dr. B.” I was inspired by Dr. Carl Sagan, the famed astronomer who kept a diary of his experiments with cannabis. He published them under the pseudonym, “Mr. X,” in 1971. (It’s available at

I’m still the subject of my own on-going cannabis experiments. Recently, Dr. B., the Santa Rosa psychiatrist, told me he was using marijuana medicinally and that it didn’t make him inert or stupid or feel “stoned.” And for years he had warned me about the dangers of marijuana.

This past summer for the first time I began to use marijuana extracts with a marijuana farmer who had planted an acre of pot and who manufactured “wax” and “shatter.” I would smoke with him and then get on my bicycle and ride around his garden. It was good exercise and I discovered that I could dab and bike and that nothing bad happened. I never took a spill.

What is it that Ishmael says in Herman Melville’s epic, Moby-Dick? “A whale ship was my Harvard and my Yale.” I would tweak that sentence and say, “A pot farm has been my Harvard and my Yale.”

Perhaps as cannabis loses its stigma and is more widely recognized as a plant with valuable properties, lawyers, doctors and other professionals will come out of the closet and reveal their own personal experiences with marijuana. Maybe SSU will offer a seminar in which teachers will talk candidly about cannabis as a medicine, a plant, and a drug that has co-evolved with human beings for thousands of years. Hey, universities are slow to change, but once they do, they institutionalize everything and everyone. Marijuana could be as much a part of the curriculum as computer science.

(Jonah Raskin is the author of Marijuanaland: Dispatches from an American War (High Times).)

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