Irie Ivy: Harvard Cannabis Class Heavy On Health

“My course is the first course at the Harvard Extension School in which students will learn how to critically examine the science of cannabis and potential health effects it causes.”

Unless you know the history of psychedelics in academia, cannabis and the Ivy League might seem like an unconventional pairing. Yet this fall, some Harvard Extension School students have the option of taking a science course titled “Health Effects of Cannabis.”

Is it a throwback to the ’60s? Hardly. It’s very much part of the moment.

“I think we find ourselves in a unique setting regarding cannabis use in the United States,” Steven Boomhower, instructor of the Harvard course, wrote in an interview with DigBoston.

A toxicologist and psychopharmacologist who has researched the subject for about 10 years, Boomhower describes the course as a serious examination of cannabis and its effects on human health—both therapeutic as well as adverse. The 18 students currently enrolled in the class as part of the college’s online fall semester will study both the plant itself and the cannabinoids it contains, including the mostly commonly consumed ones like THC and CBD.

“Health Effects of Cannabis” represents a milestone for Harvard Extension School, the adult-education arm of the university offering the course. Other sections throughout the extensive Harvard system, including many taught by recently deceased Harvard Medical School psychiatry professor and godfather of cannabis education Lester Grinspoon, have explored tangential topics. But Boomhower noted, “To my knowledge, my course is the first course at the Harvard Extension School in which students will learn how to critically examine the science of cannabis and potential health effects it causes.”

The class is structured in a three-part sequence. First, in what Boomhower calls the most important segment, students learn how to evaluate scientific studies. Moving on, they examine the potential therapeutic and adverse effects of cannabis, in that order. Lectures can be streamed live or watched on-demand.

Steven Boomhower of Harvard Extension School

“There are certain benefits to having the class be entirely virtual as well as drawbacks,” Boomhower said. “For example, it is a lot easier for me to have impromptu group discussions during class time with breakout rooms. However, I miss having those brief discussions with students before and after class time. When you log out of the virtual classroom, you’re gone.”

There is also the sheer breadth of the topic.

“There’s simply not enough weeks in the semester to cover the universe that is cannabis health studies,” he said, “which is why I ask all students to complete a literature review that critically examines the relationship between cannabis (or a specific cannabinoid, like THC or CBD) and a health effect of their choosing.”

Generation Z students are particularly poised to benefit from knowledge leaps that weren’t available to their counterparts in past decades, according to the prof. These days, he notes, “We certainly know a lot more about cannabis than we did 30 years ago, when scientific research was much more difficult to conduct.”

On the therapeutic side, Boomhower noted that FDA-approved cannabinoid-based drugs are now used to treat various seizures and chemotherapy-induced nausea. He’s encouraged by data indicating that cannabinoids could have a benefit against some chronic pain conditions, potentially replacing addictive opioids. On the adverse side, he pointed to the state of California connecting chemicals in cannabis smoke to cancer and birth defects. We shouldn’t “equate an increase in knowledge,” Boomhower explained, “with an increase in safety.”

“Changes in regulation and legality have made it much easier to purchase and take cannabis and cannabis-derived compounds, whether it’s through smoke inhalation, oral consumption, or dermal application. … It’s important to keep in mind too that cannabis is a plant that contains a number of compounds, not just THC and CBD.”

Boomhower himself was introduced to the study of cannabis as a college freshman at Idaho State University in his home state. A native of Twin Falls, he worked in a lab researching the effects of cannabinoids on eating behavior. After graduating, he earned his PhD at Auburn University in Alabama, then came to the Boston area for a postdoctoral fellowship at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. As a postdoc, he began teaching continuing education classes on campus, and has published several scholarly articles about cannabinoid drugs, including their impact on eating behavior in rodents.

Today, outside of the classroom, Boomhower works as a toxicologist for Gradient, which he describes as an environmental and risk-science consulting firm. On and off the clock, he spends a lot of time reflecting on how things have changed …

“Although we’ve come a long way since the 1970s in the science of cannabis, I think it never hurts to gather more data.”

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