HIGHER EDUCATION: SU’s cannabis studies program offers students experience in the emerging market


r. Junella Chin was initially resistant to trying medicinal cannabis to treat her spinal disease, but now credits it for making her career possible. She suffers from ankylosing spondylitis, a condition that causes the bones of the spine to fuse together. Without using cannabis, she would be unable to function all day as a doctor.

“I was so ill that it was a point where I would either drop out of medical school or find something else,” Chin said. “I was really, really reluctant, but it slowly got my health back and I started learning about the science of it.”

Twenty years since Chen began using medical cannabis, she shares her story and teaches students about the cannabis industry through Syracuse University’s cannabis studies program. SU offers a cannabis studies minor for students along with a certificate for those outside of the university through its College of Professional Studies. Dr. Chin teaches cannabis health and science at SU as part of the credit program.

She said one of the biggest issues surrounding cannabis is consumer information. Changing laws regarding cannabis use around the country, including New York’s recent legalization, have made it relevant, but people know little about it, she said.

“It’s important to teach (about cannabis)… I look at college kids as the primer, because then they can go into cannabis law, they can go into cannabis medicine, they can go into cannabis chemistry,” Chin said. “That is where we have to plant the seed. No pun intended.”

Jim Gaffey, executive director of administration and strategy at the College of Professional Studies, introduced a cannabis studies program in 2021 at SU. After marijuana was legalized in New York, Gaffey decided SU should play a role in the industry’s growth.

“We wanted to make sure that (the cannabis industry) was something that could grow in New York state both responsibly and sustainably,” Gaffey said. “We felt that Syracuse University, in its history of providing education, could play a role in helping to mold the industry from an educational perspective.”

Before teaching at SU, Chin attended medical school in California. When the state legalized medical cannabis use in 1996, she watched its usage as treatment for symptoms of autoimmune diseases grow.

Chin was initially reluctant to use cannabis to treat her spinal disease because she worried the stigma could harm her career, but it successfully supplemented her other treatments.

“I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? I’m trying to be a doctor,’” Chin said. “I basically kept it under the radar.”

After the treatment helped alleviate some of her pain and helped her regain mobility, she became interested in the science behind plant based medicine. As a doctor, she was interested in other applications of her treatment.

“I thought if medical cannabis could help me, and I was studying to be a doctor, why can’t I help other patients to do it?’” Chin said. “So I made it a career to teach patients about plant-based medicine.”

When SU reached out in 2021 about starting a program to educate students about the cannabis industry, Chin was thrilled. She now teaches about harm reduction, drug epidemics and the science behind medicinal cannabis.

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Chin also serves as the vice chairwoman of the Advisory Board for the New York State Office of Cannabis Management. The board attempts to dispel misconceptions about cannabis, such as beliefs that it is a “magic bullet” and should be only used in extreme cases like cancer treatment.

“Our main goal is to provide awareness and harm reduction, to make sure that the public and vulnerable populations are protected,” Chin said. “As a professor at Syracuse and at NYU, my main goal is to get good information out to people.”

One of those people is Noah Aznoian, an MBA student at SU studying marketing and enterprise. He is currently taking a cannabis science class with Chin within the cannabis studies minor and takes her class about medicinal cannabis.

Aznoian plans to pursue a career in consulting in the cannabis industry. SU’s program has helped him develop better research methods, and he’s helped to co-teach and be a research assistant for several classes to learn how to apply his knowledge to the industry.

Two years ago, Aznoian met Chin after coming across her book, “Cannabis and CBD for Health and Wellness,” and reached out to learn from her expertise. He has been working with her recently to gain a better understanding of how to make efficient medical applications for patients.

“I’ve really gotten into the industry here at the university,” Aznoian said. “It’s really exciting.”

Aznoian said that a common misconception about cannabis is that it is a cure-all miracle drug. It has specific health benefits that can be used for different applications, but more work needs to be done for consumer education, he added.

“I think there is a lot of stigma around cannabis use in the United States,” Aznoian said. “It’s so valuable what Chin is doing here for Syracuse because people are not educated on how it works in the body and how it works in general.”

Aznoian said with New York’s legalization of recreational marijuana, the industry is a growing market. The state has a dense population of medical marijuana consumers, which makes it influential for the industry across the country, he said.

“For Syracuse as a university to have a role in informing and educating those that are going to be in and around the industry here in New York is super, super valuable,” Aznoian said.


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