Higher Ed

William Paterson University Forms Cannabis Institute

Interdisciplinary group of faculty and staff experts to conduct research, provide information for policy makers

William Paterson University in Wayne has formed a Cannabis Institute designed to provide evidence-based scientific and economic information on topics related to cannabis, as well as opioid drugs and other substances.

The Cannabis Institute is comprised of a dozen University faculty and staff from a range of academic disciplines who conduct basic, clinical, and public health research, as well as analyze data to inform policy makers, provide information for drug-related counseling, and inform curricula.

“The possible legalization of marijuana in New Jersey has significant public policy, economic, and public health implications that require in-depth research and analysis,” says Richard J. Helldobler, president of William Paterson University. “We formed this institute so that our highly qualified faculty who study cannabis and other related topics can serve as a resource to help inform policy and practice based on their research and expertise, and to serve as an incubator for collaborative research projects and curriculum.”

Cannabis Institute members are available to act in an advisory capacity to state, county, or municipal agencies seeking information concerning medicinal and recreational use of marijuana. The Institute will also serve to disseminate and discuss results of research and data and policy analyses through conferences, seminars, forums, and public lectures.

The Cannabis Institute is under the direction of Rahi Abouk, PhD, a William Paterson University associate professor of economics, finance, and global business who is a specialist in health economics and the economics of substance abuse. He regularly conducts research on the effect of public policies targeting electronic and conventional cigarettes, alcohol, cannabis, and opioid. His research on the link between the legalization of medical marijuana and cardiovascular-related deaths was published in the International Journal of Drug Policy, and he currently exploring the labor market effects of legalizing marijuana for recreational purposes and the effect on children and youth.

Other faculty and staff members of the Cannabis Institute include:

Elizabeth Amaya-Fernandez, MPH, wellness coordinator, Counseling, Health, and Wellness Center. Amaya-Fernandez is a health educator with more than 20 years of experience in college health, peer education, and health promotion. Prior to joining William Paterson University, she was a health education specialist, primarily responsible for alcohol and other drug prevention education at Rutgers University, serving the New Brunswick and Piscataway campuses.  She has also worked as director of education at the National Latina Health Network.

LaShauna M. Dean, PhD, associate professor of special education and counseling. Dr. Dean is co-director of the University’s Professional Counseling Program and specializes in clinical mental health counseling, especially substance abuse and trauma. She has worked as a counselor, substance abuse clinician, case manager, and crisis intervention worker, and has served as an individual and group counselor in the treatment of people with cannabis use disorders.

Aleksandar Kecojevic, PhD, assistant professor of public health. Dr. Kecojevic studies substance use, HIV/AIDS, high-risk youth, and sexual orientation disparities in substance use. He has worked on National Institutes of Health-funded projects studying patterns of use and health consequences of substance use among young adults in Los Angeles and New York and was part of evaluation studies of overdose prevention programs in Los Angeles and Philadelphia to determine interventions that effectively reduce fatal opioid drug overdoses. His work has been published in Addiction, International Journal of Drug Policy, and Drug and Alcohol Dependence, among others.

William Kernan, PhD, professor of public health. Dr. Kernan has more than 20 years of experience developing collegiate and community-based substance abuse prevention programs., including intervention programs targeting prescription opioid and heroin abuse and psychoeducational programs about marijuana. He is the research director for United in Prevention in Passaic County, a county-wide substance abuse prevention program.

Betty Kollia, PhD, professor of communication disorders and sciences. A speech language pathologist for more than 25 years, she has expertise in cognitive and language processes and disorders due to autism, stroke, and traumatic brain injury, among other causes. She is focused on cannabis availability and usage and its potential impact on sensitive populations such as those with limited English proficiency; youth, especially with language and learning, and persons who have sustained brain damage impacting their communication and cognition.

Claire Leonard, PhD, professor of biology. Dr. Leonard conducts research on the molecular biology of cannabinoid receptors in the brain.  Her work has appeared in the journal Scientific Reports, as well as the book Endocannabinoids: Molecular, Pharmacological, Behavioral, and Clinical Features.

Emmanuel Onaivi, PhD, professor of biology. Dr. Onaivi conducts research on the molecular biology of drug abuse. He has edited three books on cannabis, including The Biology of Marijuana; Endocannabinoids: The Brain and Body’s Marijuana and Beyond; and Marijuana and Cannabinoid Research Methods and Protocols, as well as numerous journal articles and papers. He has conducted research funded by a grant from the National Institute of Drug Abuse of the National Institutes of Health and is a Fulbright Scholar.

Glen Sherman, PhD, associate vice president and dean of students. A clinical psychologist, Dr. Sherman has played a leadership role in drug and alcohol prevention in Passaic County and New Jersey, and currently helps administer United for Prevention in Passaic County, a county-wide prevention coalition.

Sean K. Wilson, PhD, assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice. His research interests include race and crime, penology, reentry, and criminal justice policy. He currently works alongside several statewide criminal justice policy organizations in New Jersey examining the collateral consequences of drug policies on communities of color.

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