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UCLA’s paranoid stance on cannabis leaves students in the lurch

UCLA’s paranoid stance on cannabis leaves students in the lurch
Ken Borkan, left, and Brent Gerson, cannabis conference organizers and MBA students at the UCLA School of Management. (Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

In 2015, Brent Gerson was an unhappy thirtysomething guy — living in Chicago, hating the weather, plagued by obsessive compulsive disorder, anxiety and depression. Traditional medicine had not helped him, so he began looking for alternatives.

His research led him, almost inevitably, to cannabis. Colorado had just legalized recreational cannabis, so he took himself to Denver and spent two weeks learning about THC and CBD, the therapeutic components of cannabis. He experimented with ratios, doses and blends.

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“Without question,” he told me, “cannabis changed my life.”

Not only did pot relieve his symptoms, it inspired a new life path.

He left Chicago and returned to his undergraduate alma mater, UCLA, where he enrolled in the Anderson School of Management. His intention, he said, was “to be able to hack cannabis from the inside.”

He believes he has. Two months ago, Gerson, 37, left his job as an executive at City National Bank to launch a cannabis business that grew out of his master’s thesis. The company, started with two fellow students, is aimed at helping people plagued by sleeplessness figure out what kind of marijuana can help.

The company will procure vape pens and joints from three cannabis companies, and offer customers a box with a variety of strengths and strains to see what may work, since everyone responds differently. The object is to help people sleep without pharmaceuticals, not to get high. Dr. Alon Avidan, director of the UCLA Sleep Disorders Center, is an advisor.

Last month, however, UCLA rolled out a restrictive policy about cannabis-related activities, which has put the future of cannabis entrepreneurship at UCLA in jeopardy and forced the last-minute cancellation of a cannabis research conference Gerson had helped organize.

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The year after Gerson’s trip to Denver, California voters overwhelmingly legalized pot for adult use. Among the law’s many requirements, Proposition 64 directed that $10 million, generated by cannabis taxes and fees, be channeled every year to state universities for cannabis research. (To underline: The law requires that cannabis money be set aside for universities.)

The end of prohibition seemed like an extraordinary opportunity for aspiring entrepreneurs to get in on an ever-expanding, ever-innovating market. Where better than a graduate business school to plumb the possibilities?

Around that time, an Anderson student founded the Cannabis Business Assn., a professional group geared toward helping launch careers in the newly legalized industry. That student, Jeff Chen, a graduate of UCLA’s dual degree MD/MBA program, has gone on to become the founder and executive director of UCLA’s new Cannabis Research Initiative, which bills itself as “one of the first academic programs in the world dedicated to the study of cannabis.”

On June 3, the CBA was to hold a cannabis research conference in Korn Hall on campus. It would bring together experts and students for a day of panel discussions and networking.

Eaze, the delivery app that connects consumers and product, was lined up as a sponsor — to provide breakfast, lunch and some videography help, said Peter Gigante, the company’s head of policy research. “My job is to bridge the gap between those who publish in academic journals and those who would never in a million years read an academic journal, but need to know what’s happening.” Seemed like a perfect fit for a management school conference about cannabis.

But last week, the students were informed by UCLA administrators that their conference violates the new university policy. Cannabis remains illegal on the federal level, administrators said, therefore the conference would put UCLA at risk of violating federal law since it included experts and sponsorship from the industry.

“UCLA should not sponsor programs or activities that are designed to help entrepreneurs develop businesses that engage in the cultivation, sale, distribution, or marketing of marijuana,” Ann Pollack, UCLA’s assistant vice chancellor for research, wrote in an email to Elizabeth McKillop, Anderson’s director of student services. “Doing so creates a risk of potential charges of ‘aiding and abetting’ violations of the federal Controlled Substances Act.”

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The message was provided to me by someone Pollack had cc’d.

Pollack did not respond to a request for an interview, but it is obvious that UCLA is fearful of compromising the stream of federal money that flows into its coffers, from places such as the National Institutes of Health, and medical reimbursements from Medicare and Medicaid.

Students will not be permitted to work with cannabis companies in any respect, or be mentored by cannabis entrepreneurs, or to invite cannabis industry leaders to participate in UCLA events, whether on campus or off.

“We felt we were on a great trajectory here,” said Ken Borkan, 31, who recently became president of Anderson’s Cannabis Business Assn. About 120 of the school’s 700 students are active members, he said.

He is furious about the new rules. “We are supposed to be a leading, cutting-edge institution, and this puts us at a disadvantage.”

Business school administrators have been supportive, he said. “UCLA as an institution is the problem.”

I think he’s right.

Last month, an opinion columnist for the Daily Bruin called for the university to expand its minuscule cannabis curriculum. “There aren’t academic avenues for Bruins to learn about weed,” wrote Patrik Bauer. “While multiple universities around the country have begun to offer cannabis majors and specializations, UCLA only offers a few classes at best.”

The university really needs to find its spine on this one.

It is only a matter of time before cannabis is removed from the federal list of banned substances.

Many cannabis experts say that Los Angeles is or soon will be the epicenter of the American cannabis industry. UCLA should be at the forefront of cannabis research — which it arguably is — but also of cannabis entrepreneurship.

“For us, as a business school, to put our heads in the sand and act like this doesn’t exist, it just devalues an MBA education at UCLA Anderson,” Borkan said.

As I mentioned, UCLA will certainly be among the California public universities vying for those millions of cannabis dollars for research.

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So why is one source of cannabis money OK, while another is not?

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