Why The Cannabis Industry Needs Accessible Research - Q&A with Maha Haq
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I met this wonderful young vibrant woman when she asked me to be on a panel at the UCLA Cannabis Club in 2018, the first of its kind and of which she founded. Under her leadership, the club expanded to ten other universities across the states, creating a base of knowledge and networking for the new industry. Maha Haq graduated from UCLA in 2019 and is now leading the education initiative at CannaSafe.
Haq, whom I know to have her sights a decade into the future, will be continuing to pursue her M.S. in Pharmaceutical Studies at the University of Maryland, at the School of Pharmacy, the first cannabis graduate program in the nation.
How has the national movement of Black Lives Matter changed the cannabis industry and your work? Has it? If it hasn’t, how will you help make changes?
Maha Haq: Cannabis has long been used to oppress and discriminate against Black and Brown communities. This ugly history still carries true to today. In order to right these historical wrongs, we must take action now.
Lately, dozens of cannabis companies have posted on social media regarding the Black Lives Matter movement in an effort to take part in the conversation. Whether it’s by promoting Black-owned brands or by bringing awareness to initiatives and organizations dedicated to empowering Black communities, these messages and dialogues are a necessary start. However, these companies must continue to take action in order to effect proper change.
The legal cannabis industry is still new and will continue to set standards for future businesses. One standard being set is called corporate social responsibility (CSR), which is a business’s commitment to charity and activism. The cannabis industry is one of the few business sectors that require CSR. Some cities are looking into CSR involvement for prospective and current cannabis businesses. The City of LA, for example, requests CSR reports on the business’ efforts on community engagement and philanthropic contributions.
I established a CSR program through Cannaclub at my workplace, CannaSafe—the first ISO accredited cannabis testing lab in the world. In response to the Black Lives Matter movement, some of us physically attended the protests, helped fund Black social equity owned businesses, donated to nonprofits aiding Black communities, and sponsored events promoting Black and Brown leaders in cannabis. At Cannaclub, part of our mission is to make positive social impacts through our advocacy. We aim to educate and partner with groups who nurture social justice.
How did you enter the cannabis industry?
I first entered the cannabis industry when I turned 18 before current regulations were in place. I started as a budtender at a pre-ICO (“interim control ordinance”) medical dispensary in Los Angeles. However, my first time interacting with medical cannabis patients was when I was 17 during my time volunteering at the City of Hope Cancer Hospital. Meeting cancer patients sparked my passion for helping others navigate the therapeutics of medical cannabis.
Since then, I worked at dispensaries throughout Los Angeles and worked my way up into other sectors like analytical testing and business consulting all while attending school. It has been a great and unique learning experience for the past 8.5 years.
Did you do research into cannabis before entering?
Since I was still a teenager when I discovered cannabis, my initial research was based on my own health concerns. I used to move back and forth between states, which unfortunately caused me to get sick often with upper-respiratory infections.
I was recommended appetite-inducing prescriptions to help me maintain and gain weight when I was sick. I did not react well to these medications. But when I tried cannabis for the first time, it was also the first time I felt my appetite came back. I dove deeper into researching how THC acts as an appetite stimulant and connected the dots when I was helping out cancer patients.
How does your family feel about your cannabis businesses?
My family is more support today than they were when I first started with cannabis. My mom caught me smoking weed when I was 17, and that moment is also what set forth my career in cannabis. Convincing my immigrant mother about the benefits of cannabis was difficult, so she demanded a lengthy report on why it’s okay for me to consume. I listed my reasons and cited medical journals. My mom is a clinical researcher at a hospital, and she offered the opportunity to present my report to her colleagues and their patients. Since then, my mom has been the number one supporter of my cannabis journey and career.
Eventually, my family stopped keeping my job a secret when I started Cannaclub at UCLA, a cannabis student group focused on education, advocacy, and opportunities in the space—now in 5 states at 11 campuses. Then, my family started bragging about my career when I began my graduate studies in Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Maryland, School of Pharmacy, focusing on medical cannabis sciences. Education is a priority for my family, so I decided to continue my studies in cannabis. Doing so helped legitimize this plant for them. It took some time, but now they are truly proud of my cannabis ventures and education.
What is your favorite way of ingesting cannabis?
While I enjoy many methods of ingestion, I particularly enjoy dabbing concentrates/extracts. I desire a quick onset and that can be achieved through inhalation administration methods. With dabbing, I’m inhaling concentrated cannabis oils. This is a more potent product than smoking cannabis flower. I only need one dab, or one hit, of concentrate as opposed to five smoke hits of flower.
I also prefer dabbing and smoking through high-quality glass pipes and bongs. The experience is more amplified for me with water filtration. Making sure the glass is clean and water is fresh also contributes to the overall dabbing and smoking experience. I like a clean hit!
I enjoy dabbing hash-rosin especially as it’s extracted through natural means and is usually high quality. Consuming hash-rosin is also arguably healthier because it lacks additives like solvents.
Where do you see the cannabis industry in five years?
I anticipate cannabis being rescheduled, perhaps to Schedule 2. If that happens, Big Pharma will have its hand in the pot (pun intended). However, if that doesn’t happen, federal legalization might follow as more states gradually approve cannabis legislation. I also see hemp becoming a more established commodity, especially with its versatile uses.
I’m hoping cannabis research will be progressing by then as well. Getting research started takes a very long time, and I’ve experienced this while working at the UCLA Cannabis Research Initiative. In five years, there should be more opportunities for research and accessible cannabis research programs. More universities will offer courses on cannabis subjects by then too. Cannabis is indeed an interdisciplinary topic and some schools have already started some. An array of subjects can include cannabis classes in the curriculum.
Why do you think some Asians are against cannabis?
The stigma associated with cannabis within the South Asian community is quite convoluted. My father is Indian and my mother is from Pakistan. Cannabis is indigenous to India and Pakistan and is embedded in the region's cultural roots, yet it remains a taboo due to religious and political concerns. The reasons for this that I want to share are from personal experiences and what my family and community have taught me.
In India, the only people allowed to consume cannabis publicly are religious leaders like “sages” known as Rishis. Committing the same act of consumption as Rishis is perceived as disrespectful by some of the general public in India. This is because one has to reach an enlightened state to consume cannabis since it is considered one of the five holy plants in Hinduism. Bhang, a popular cannabis-infused milk drink is often consumed during celebrations, but openly drinking it is not acceptable, especially for women. Women usually don’t hold religious positions like Rishis.
Pakistan, on the other hand, condemns the use of cannabis in totality and has contrasting religious views on the plant as Hindus do. In Islam, cannabis is considered to cause intoxication, but this remains up for debate since it was utilized as a medicine during the Islamic Golden Age. However, cannabis is rejected in Islamic-Pakistani culture and has some of the harshest punishments for cannabis possession despite it growing abundantly along with the country’s mountain ranges. The motive is not so much against the plant, but instead to maintain different identities, culture, and practices from the neighboring country, India.
As a first-generation American, discussing cannabis is difficult to navigate among the two communities I am part of—both views are so contrasting yet similar. But with new research and education, acceptance will inevitably follow.