Photo courtesy of Rhonda Gonzales ’89

As the dean of library services at Colorado State University-Pueblo and one of just five people at that leadership level, Rhonda Gonzales ’89 often is asked to participate in campus-wide initiatives.

Three years ago, the initiative on the table was related to cannabis — and thanks to Colorado’s status as a legal state (both for medical and recreational cannabis), it was a big one.

During the summer of 2016, Rick Kreminski, then-provost and executive vice president of academic affairs at CSU-Pueblo, wrote a proposal to the state legislature to create the Institute for Cannabis Research at the university. The legislature approved an initial appropriation of $900,000 and increased its support the following two fiscal years with a $1.8 million appropriation from the Marijuana Tax Cash Fund, a fund that collects tax revenue from marijuana sales and dispenses it to projects such as mental health treatment, law enforcement training, and cannabis research.

After the first funds came through, Kreminski appointed the five deans to an ICR steering committee, and Gonzales says, “we just started working on it from the ground up.”

As she recalls, there were three main action items from the proposal: hosting a cannabis conference, publishing a journal, and funding research.

The steering committee broke off into working committees and Gonzales joined the one she felt most closely aligned to, journal publishing.

The open-access, online-only and peer-reviewed Journal of Cannabis Research launched in June 2019. Papers found in Volume 1 range in focus from a review of the attitudes toward cannabis of high school students who reside in communities with legal recreational dispensaries to “a study using micro-satellite genetic markers to evaluate the biological validity and consistency of cannabis strains that were initially classified on the basis of their marketing brand names.”

“It’s been really interesting for me because I’m usually on the other side of the table working with journal publishers to simply negotiate a contract or subscribe to a journal on behalf of the library. To try and work with journals from the other side … was a real learning experience,” she says. “I think at first I imagined it would be an open-access, free journal that we would just get a publisher to publish for us. But in further talks with our provost and getting the vision solidified, he envisioned a real published academic journal — not self-published, not in-house, but published by a major journal publisher.”

Another learning experience came in the form of two major publishers who, Gonzales says, “shied away and didn’t want to go there,” when it came to the topic. Springer Nature, one of the world’s largest academic publishers who ultimately came on as the publishing partner through its biomed central platform, had no such qualms. “There is a lot of research, you know, actual legitimate scientific research, and I think some of the publishers, and Springer in particular, really understood that — that we’re on the cusp of this becoming its own discipline and want to get in on the ground floor.”

At least, basically at the ground floor. Gonzales notes that there was one other journal that “beat us to the punch by about a year … but we feel there’s lots of room in the marketplace for more than one journal on this subject. What’s a little bit different about our institute and our journal is we set out from the beginning to be a multidisciplinary institute, and our approach to the research is also multidisciplinary. We really encourage people to submit research from the social sciences, from a business perspective, from an economic perspective, not just biomedical science.”

Gonzales may not be involved in the day-to-day of the journal anymore — they’ve hired an editor-in-chief and staff to manage the project — but as a dean, she’s not escaping the topic any time soon.

“We’re also just getting ready to launch a major in cannabis science here at CSU-Pueblo. So that’s also a foray into a little bit murky territory but … we feel there’s going to be a real market for it. We’re approached often by members of the cannabis business community wanting us to do things that we can’t do, like test their product for them. But also, there just seems to be a hunger for education for people who are wanting to get into the industry and maybe lack some of the scientific background.”