Want to get in at the ground level in a growing industry? Look no further than these colleges and universities offering cannabis courses, majors and minors.
Marijuana is now legal in some form in more than two dozen states, after three states loosened their laws in this month’s midterm elections. The industry is expanding rapidly. Retail demand grew from an estimated $1.5 billion in sales in 2010 to a projected 11.8 billion in 2018, according to New Frontier Data, which tracks cannabis industry data and analytics. That growth could present an opportunity for both recent graduates seeking jobs and the higher education institutions willing to prepare them.
About 200,000 people were employed in the cannabis industry in 2017. New Frontier projects the industry to grow to at least 630,000 workers by 2025. Those estimates don’t include data on three states that passed cannabis-related ballot initiatives during the midterms.
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Paul Seaborn, a professor at the University of Denver’s Daniels College of Business who teaches a course on the business of marijuana, said he often hears from companies looking for employees. “They don’t have a shortage of applicants, but they have a shortage of qualified applicants,” he said.
Cannabis employers ‘don’t have a shortage of applicants, but they have a shortage of qualified applicants.’
Colleges are well-positioned to prepare students to work in the sector as lawyers, accountants, chemists, botanists, and more. But the stigma and questionable legal territory the marijuana industry occupies — though allowed in some states, it’s still illegal at the federal level — has made it difficult for universities to completely embrace.
Over the past few years some schools have started to experiment with cannabis-related courses and degree programs. And more may be on the way, amid the changing legal landscape. “There will be that opportunity for some school somewhere to be the center of gravity for this,” Seaborn said.
Northern Michigan University offers major in medicinal plant chemistry
Northern Michigan University could wind up being one of the colleges in that conversation. The Marquette, Mich.-based school started a degree program in medicinal plant chemistry two years ago. Already, they have 230 students enrolled, according to Mark Paulsen, the head of the school’s chemistry department. (The cost of freshman year at NMU is $10,729.44 for in-state students and $16,225.44 for out-of-state students).
The idea for the program came a few years ago, when officials at NMU asked faculty to come up with “futuristic leading-edge academic majors,” Paulsen said. A degree in medicinal chemistry seemed to fit the bill.
At the time, Michigan was considering changes to the regulatory environment surrounding cannabis — which have since passed — that would require more rigorous testing of the product before giving it to patients. The state also legalized marijuana for recreational use this month, opening the door for a bigger cannabis industry.
“There was a need for additional trained scientists interested in this sort of field who have a good background in botany and analytical chemistry,” to staff testing labs tied to the new regulations and to work in production, Paulsen said.
All of the students take the same core sciences classes as part of the major, which are largely a mix of chemistry and biology courses. Then they can pick one of two tracks: An entrepreneurial pathway or a bioanalytical pathway, Paulsen said.
Before they launched the program, Paulsen predicted it would grow slowly, but steadily. Instead, enrollment went from zero to 230 in just two years, with interest from students living all across the country, a relative rarity for a more regional university like NMU. “We terribly underestimated the interest,” he said.
Stockton University offers a minor in cannabis studies
A couple of years ago, officials and faculty at Stockton University began considering how they could address cannabis in their curriculum. Medical marijuana has been legal in New Jersey, where Stockton is located, since 2010 and the state appears poised to legalize it for recreational use.
Colleges often struggle to balance their mission to provide students with a general education that will prepare them to think critically and be engaged citizens with a need to also prepare students for jobs, said Kathy Sedia, a biology professor at Stockton.
The prospect of a booming marijuana industry offered the school the chance to create a program that would address both priorities, Sedia said. “Colleges, we are often kind of slow to change but that seemed like a good opportunity,” she said.
They developed a minor in cannabis studies which the school started offering this year. Sedia oversees the program, which involves five courses, including an internship placement as well as two required classes on medicinal cannabis and cannabis law.
Stockton University has a minor in cannabis studies and is considering offering a certificate program for people who have also expressed interest in the cannabis industry.
So far, there appears to be interest. The Cannabis Law course, one of the first in the sequence, is full and already 15 students have declared the minor. The school is even considering offering some kind of certificate program for members of the community who have also expressed interest in the topic, Sedia said. (A year at Stockton University, including tuition, room and board costs $26,305 for in-state students and $33,432 for out-of-state students).
Student interest is part of what drove Sam Kamin, a professor at the University of Denver’s Strum College of Law, to begin a course in 2015 on what lawyers should know when representing a marijuana client. It’s been full for the three years the course has been offered, he said.
Many of the students plan to work in fields other than marijuana law, but know the knowledge they’ll glean from the class will be useful for representing a variety of clients, including small businesses or real-estate firms, he said. (A year of law school at the University of Denver, including tuition, housing and other expenses costs $73,282).
His syllabus includes lessons on the ethics of representing a marijuana client and the legal battles between states and the federal government over cannabis. But the content of class is constantly shifting, Kaimin said.
“You have changes in the law, you have changes on the ground,” he said. “The market changes really quickly.”
University of California-Davis teaches about the health risks
As marijuana legalization took effect in California in 2017, leaders in the physiology faculty at the University of California-Davis thought it would be a good idea to introduce students to the health effects, risks and benefits of cannabis, said Yu-Fung Lin, a physiology, membrane biology and anesthesiology professor at the school.
The upper-level course requires students to have fulfilled some physiology or neurobiology prerequisite courses to enroll, she said. Some of the students may be interested in entering the marijuana industry, Lin said, but that’s certainly not the case for all of the students. (Tuition and fees at the University of California-Davis cost $14,403 for in-state students and $43,395 for out-of-state students).
‘Even in states where it’s fully legal, our institutions are very reticent to get into cannabis research because so many of our campuses frankly depend on relationships with the federal science agencies for that work.’
Some may be going on to medical school, getting another professional degree where some knowledge of the physiology of cannabis would be useful or are interested in a research career involving the topic.
Universities are also increasingly interested in pursuing more research on cannabis, but actually taking part in it can be tough because of its legal status at the federal level, said Jennifer Poulakidas, vice president of congressional governmental affairs at the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities (APLU), a public university membership group.
A large share of research funding at many universities comes from the federal government, which is very hesitant to subsidize research on a drug that’s illegal at the federal level.
“Even in states where it’s fully legal, our institutions are very reticent to get into cannabis research because so many of our campuses frankly depend on relationships with the federal science agencies for that work,” she said.
Public universities are pushing for regulatory changes
APLU is pushing for some regulatory changes that could open up opportunities for research in the space. There’s a provision in the Senate version of the Farm bill that would make it easier for universities to study hemp — a measure APLU is hopeful will stay in the final version. The organization also plans to work to reduce barriers to research on other cannabis species and strains, Poulakidas said.
“There’s a lot of curiosity in the research world and in the science world about this,” Poulakidas said. Right now, there’s somewhat of a dearth of credible research on the topic. The entry of universities into the arena could help provide evidence-based answers to questions about everything from the medical use of cannabis to the varying effects of different strains.
In Canada, where marijuana was legalized last month, universities are positioning themselves to help prepare students to fill the needs of the industry. At McGill University in Montreal, the faculty is in the midst of developing a one-year degree in cannabis for college graduates.
The program, slated to launch in 2020, aims to prepare graduates to work at the master grower or management level, said Anja Geitmann, a dean and professor of agricultural and environmental science at McGill. (It’s too early to say how much the program will cost). Students will learn how to optimize growing conditions for the plant, about the genetic makeup of cannabis, the legal landscape and the medical applications of cannabinoids, among other topics, she said.
Geitmann and her colleagues were motivated to come up with the program in part because they knew legalization would be an “unprecedented” agricultural event.
“It is akin to the end of prohibition,” she said. “There’s huge opportunity for scientific research. In parallel, there’s a huge need for a qualified workforce.”
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Jillian Berman covers student debt and millennial finance. You can follow her on Twitter @JillianBerman.
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