Cannabis growth industry has colleges adapting

Want practical experience growing marijuana, but have no idea how to get a plant? Or just not comfortable growing cannabis at home?

Try stinging nettle, which is a plant that’s distantly related to cannabis and has similar growth patterns.

That’s one of many workarounds Dana Milstein had to learn as she developed curriculum for UC Riverside’s new extension program focused on cannabis, which is the first program of its kind at a public university in California.

Four years ago, graduate students at universities they couldn’t do research projects related to cannabis because administrators worried that any link to the field might hurt the school’s federal funding and its reputation. Today, UC Los Angeles, UC San Diego and UC Irvine all have dedicated cannabis research centers.

Still, it’s not yet common for universities to offer even extension courses related to cannabis. And it’s even less common for colleges to give credits for such classes, as UC Riverside is doing.

But that figures to change, as the nation’s cannabis industry supports an estimated 250,000 fulltime jobs, according to a 2020 report from industry group Leafly. That’s with recreational cannabis legal in 15 states and medicinal cannabis legal in 34 states. Given that Democrats control Congress and the White House, there’s a chance cannabis soon could be decriminalized or even legalized at the federal level ? a move that would dramatically expand the money and jobs flowing into the industry.

In late 2019, those trends prompted Eric Latham, director of program development for UC Riverside’s extension program, to consider adding cannabis coursework to the school’s catalogue as a way to help area residents find goodpaying local jobs.

“With the legalization of cannabis, it just seemed like an opportunity where our program might fit into a need that people might have,” Latham said.

The idea wasn’t a hard sell to UC Riverside administrators. Latham said school leaders saw the same potential he did. And no matter how people feel about cannabis, he said the reality that it’s a fast-growing industry means “it’s in everyone’s interest that we have people that were well trained, that understand how a business runs.”

A handful of universities outside California offer degree programs that touch on cannabis. Since 2017, Northern Michigan University has offered a bachelors degree in Medicinal Plant Chemistry that includes discussion of cannabis. The program has grown from 10 students in the first year to 325 students this year, said university spokesman Derek Hall.

A few other public schools offer minors in cannabis studies. Also, some private schools in California have cannabis classes and industry groups offer some training.

But when Latham started investigating cannabis coursework, he said he didn’t find any examples of a public university offering cannabis-oriented continuing education, which are typically non-credit classes aimed at professionals who want new skills to help advance or make a pivot in their careers.

Given what a specialized and evolving field cannabis is, and with few academics who had expertise in cannabis, Latham determined it would be a challenge for the university to create its own program from scratch. So, last year, UC Riverside become the third university in the country and the first in California to partner with the private company Green Flower to develop and teach its cannabis classes.

Curriculum developer Milstein, 45, of Newport Beach didn’t have any work experience related to cannabis when Green Flower three years ago asked her to help create a rigorous cannabis program for universities that would hold up to accreditation review. But she did have a personal experience that made the idea appealing.

Right around the time Green Flower contacted her, Milstein had started using CBD, a non-psychoactive compound found in cannabis, to help treat her autistic son’s social and speech difficulties. Her experience researching her son’s needs made her willing to help the cannabis industry develop in a thoughtful way and become more credible to the general public. So she got to work creating the education program that, since August, has been used at UC Riverside.

Students can pick from four six-month courses that focus on the business, agriculture, health or laws and policies of cannabis. All of the programs include a crash course on the history, science and legal status of cannabis, including a unit on social justice. The cost is $2,950 each.

The program is entirely online, and students are able to do much of the work at their own pace. They watch videos, do required reading, take online quizzes and complete hands-on projects that build a skill they’ll need to work in that sector. Students in the agriculture course, for example, design grow spaces and grow their own cannabis plant (or stinging nettle, if marijuana isn’t an option). In the health care class, students create mock patient profiles; in business, they sketch out their mock company’s potential supply chain.

Nine universities have now partnered with Ventura- based Green Flower, according to Daniel Kalef, the company’s vice president of higher education. University of San Diego was the second California school to come on board. And this month, Kalef said, UC Riverside became the first to offer university credit for the program.

Seventy-five students have enrolled in UC Riverside’s program so far. Latham said the student body is about evenly split between men and women. While most students are ages 25 to 40, a healthy chunk — 13% — are older. Some 90% come from California, and most of those are from Riverside, San Bernardino, Los Angeles and Orange counties.

Latest posts