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Major universities are starting to offer cannabis degree programs

By Michelle Cheng

A big challenge for employers in the nearly $14 billion global market for legal marijuana is not a shortage of applicants but the shortage of qualified applicants.

“We have one of the biggest industries developing without any trained professionals,” says Jamie Warm, co-founder and CEO of Henry’s Original, a Mendocino County, California-based cannabis cultivator and distributor. He’s pulling professionals from packaged goods industries from liquor and fashion, where the “particular business feels like their experience translates,” he says, but there’s still a “learning curve.”

Can the Ivy League help?

This autumn, Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, will offer the undergraduate course “Cannabis: Biology, Society and Industry,” which will focus on exploring the history, culture, pharmacology, horticulture and legal challenges associated with cannabis. The following year, it plans on launching a master’s degree, with an emphasis on oral and written communication skills with media and industry stakeholders.

Cornell is hardly the only school to take notice of the burgeoning field. In June, the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy announced the launch of a master’s degree in medical cannabis science and therapeutics. The two-year program starts in late August, which also is when the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia will offer the first of four courses in a new MBA option for students interested in studying the cannabis industry. And in Canada, which last year became the second country in the world to legalize weed nationwide, McGill University plans to offer a graduate degree in cannabis production starting in 2020.

The growing number of colleges adding degrees and courses in cannabis (there are also online cannabis certificate programs out there) reflects a hot industry with needs for both high-level and broad-based skills, whether in horticulture, chemistry, entrepreneurship, pharmacology, policy and regulation, communication, or the law. A similar story is taking shape right now in eSports; Ohio State University, for example, is preparing students interested in competitive gaming with an interdisciplinary education ranging from business management to coaching to gaming development.

Must be comfortable with startup environments

The legal marijuana market was valued at $13.8 billion last year and is expected to be worth $66.3 billion by 2025, according to research firm Grand View Research. Data from jobs site Indeed shows that postings for cannabis jobs have more than quadrupled since 2016, from about 300 posts per million to about a thousand posts per million in 2019.

“If you’re going to go into the industry, you really need to know all aspects of the industry,” says Carlyn S. Buckler, an associate professor at Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, who designed the school’s new undergraduate cannabis course. “In other words, you need to understand the plant itself.”

The range of academic offerings also reflects the broadening use of marijuana, which has been legalized for medical purposes in 33 US states. For instance, the University of California, Davis offers a course for medical students to teach them about the physiology of the plants and how it interacts with the human body. Doctors and pharmacists need a good understanding of the effects of marijuana, as well as how it can be used for medical purposes, says Yu-Fung Lin, a professor at the UC Davis School of Medicine.

Warm, who has interviewed ex-employees of Nike and Tesla for jobs at Henry’s, says his company has just over 100 employees now and expects to double its headcount by next year. He says that in addition to management skills and agricultural know-how, there’s a need for people with startup experience who are comfortable with “tackling things at more of a grassroots level.”

There’s also the obvious challenge of attracting professionals to an industry that is not completely legal in most countries, including the United States. While marijuana legalization in the US continues to grow state by state (33 US states have approved it for medical use, and 11 allow it recreationally) the drug is still not legal at the federal level.