Majoring in marijuana? That soon could be common as universities adapt to a growth industry.
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 just 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.
Just four years ago, graduate students at universities across Southern California were being told 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. Today, the nation’s cannabis industry supports an estimated 250,000 full-time 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 currently control congress and the White House, there’s a real 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 good-paying 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.
Developing the program
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, according to 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 rapidly evolving field cannabis is, and with few academics who had expertise in cannabis, Latham quickly 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.
Veteran 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. And they cost $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 healthcare 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.
Diverse students sign up
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.
Many students taking those courses didn’t want to be identified, saying they still worry that any link to cannabis — which remains federally illegal — might carry a stigma if they choose to work in a different field.
One student willing to talk is Lily Lopez of San Bernardino, who works full time as a sterile processing technician at a community hospital. The 35-year-old said cannabis has been part of her family for generations, and she believes it has potential to help people cope with a variety of physical, mental and spiritual problems. So she enrolled in the UC Riverside cannabis extension program to get the foundation she needs to hopefully one day start her own cultivation business representing Latinas in the industry.
“I haven’t seen anything like this,” said Lopez, who completed the business program and next wants to enroll in the agriculture track. “I want to take this information I’ve learned and really use it with a purpose to help the rest of this world.”
So far, the course in agriculture is attracting the most interest, with nearly half of all students enrolling in that program. A third have taken the the business track, while 10% are focused on healthcare and 7% on cannabis law and policy.
For Gerald Brown of Fontana, who works as a business development analyst in the healthcare field, his only experience in the cannabis sector has been as an investor. He bought his first cannabis stock about five years ago, and though he said he lost money on that one, he said two others have paid off.
Brown had taken one UC extension course on fundraising nearly 20 years ago and liked the experience. So when he saw UC Riverside offering a cannabis business program, the 60-year-old was one of the first to sign up.
He considers the course a good investment, with binders full of information he’s going to keep handy. And if the right opportunity comes up, Brown said he would consider working as a financial analyst for a cannabis company, with particular interest in how the plant might help ease the opioid crisis.
One hurdle to bringing cannabis courses to universities is financial. Federal aid, for now, might not be available for students because marijuana remains illegal at the federal level.
That hasn’t been a problem for UC Riverside, since the extension program is self-funding, with students paying for coursework out of pocket.
Other schools offering cannabis classes have found different workarounds.
At Colorado State University Pueblo, which offers an accredited Cannabis Biology Chemistry degree program, university spokeswoman Haley Sue Robinson said students only work only with industrial hemp, a type of cannabis that doesn’t have any mind-altering effects and is legal under federal law.
Students in Northern Michigan University’s plant chemistry program only work with trace amounts of cannabis in the lab, which Hall said doesn’t post a problem for federal aid or funding. Northern Michigan University hasn’t been able to arrange internships with cannabis companies, though, due to the federal status of marijuana.
Since UC Riverside’s extension program isn’t federally funded, Milstein said cannabis internships shouldn’t be a problem. But some of the school’s plans — for internship and externship programs — have been put on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Meanwhile, Kalef said more universities are eyeing Green Flower programs. The company also is looking to add new tracks, such as a criminal justice focus, as interest in cannabis higher education continues to grow.
UC Riverside’s next cannabis extension program starts March 1, with enrollment underway now.