Are Cannabis Degrees Legit?
- As more states legalize marijuana, cannabis college degrees and programs are booming.
- The cannabis industry needs skilled labor, but you don't necessarily need to major in the field.
- Be cautious about for-profit schools marketing themselves as cannabis colleges.
Ever since California legalized medical marijuana in 1996, more and more states have followed suit. Marijuana is now legal recreationally in 23 states and legal for medical purposes in 38. With legalization, cannabis has emerged as an entirely new industry — and colleges and universities are taking note.
As of February 2023, the legal cannabis industry supports 417,493 full-time equivalent jobs in the U.S. Additionally, national cannabis sales increased from 2021 to 2022, with $26.1 billion in state-regulated medical and adult-use sales reported in 2022, according to the 2023 Vangst Jobs Report.
With more states anticipating legalizing cannabis, the industry needs labor, and these workers must have the expertise and skills to work in an emerging field. This is where colleges come in.
As of February 2023, the cannabis industry supports 417,493 full-time equivalent jobs in the U.S.
More universities are designing cannabis-related programs to prepare students for this budding industry. Northern Michigan University established the first four-year degree in medicinal plant chemistry in 2017. Since then, cannabis colleges, degrees, and courses have cropped up around the country.
One of the most recent cannabis degree programs will launch in 2023 at California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt, located in Northern California's "Emerald Triangle."
Cal Poly Humboldt's bachelor's degree in cannabis studies will be housed in the university's Department of Sociology and offer concentrations in equity and social justice and environmental stewardship.
Dominic Corva, Ph.D., directs the new cannabis studies program.
"It's an interdisciplinary, applied social science degree with a strong focus on critical thinking and engagement with a globalizing policy reform landscape," Corva told BestColleges.
"Everyone else is industry-facing, in terms of certificates and majors, generally in business, uncritical regulation training, and medicinal plant chemistry. Some universities have liberal arts classes like we do, but none have a whole major."
Colleges have also established research centers to catch up with the countries pushing forward cannabis research efforts, such as Israel, Canada, and the Netherlands. Just in California, University of California campuses at Berkeley, Irvine, Los Angeles, San Diego, Riverside, and Davis all offer research programs on cannabis.
These days, cannabis continues to face unique obstacles as it carves out a place for itself in the higher education space.
Are Cannabis College Programs Legit (and Legal)?
While marijuana remains illegal at the federal level and in many states, academic programs in cannabis are legal, so long as they don't involve the sale or possession of marijuana.
For example, in California, students and researchers, no matter their age, are barred from "plant-touching" in studies since cannabis remains federally illegal.
While farming, manufacturing, laboratory testing, product distribution, and retail sales aren't allowed in the classroom, studying cannabis DNA is not illegal.
At Cal Poly Humboldt, students and researchers can study cannabis genetics as long as they don't extract or touch parts of the cannabis plant believed to contribute to its psychoactive effects: cannabinoids such as cannabidiol (CBD) and tetrahydrocannabinol (THC).
Only projects connected to federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) research licenses are allowed to interact with cannabis in this way.
Examples of Accredited Cannabis Programs
Colorado State University Pueblo's bachelor's in cannabis biology and chemistry
Lake Superior State University's associate/bachelor's in cannabis chemistry
Northern Michigan University's bachelor's in medicinal plant chemistry
Stockton University's minor in cannabis studies
SUNY Morrisville's minor in cannabis studies
University of Rhode Island's online certificate in cannabis studies
Western Illinois University's minor in cannabis production
Unfortunately, no accreditation agencies exist for cannabis-related education. Without national legalization of marijuana, the federal government has no incentive to create an accreditation agency for this industry. Additionally, states don't have the bandwidth to create an accreditation system specifically for cannabis-related education.
The good news is that public universities hold regional accreditation, meaning that cannabis courses and degrees fall under that general accreditation status. Accreditation — or lack thereof — mainly becomes an issue with for-profit schools, which have often been accused of charging exorbitant tuition fees and deceiving students.
"For a lot of these startups and the private enterprises, there's no way to tell what's actually beneficial to students and what is snake oil salespeople," said Natalie Papillion, founder and executive director of The Equity Organization in an interview with BestColleges.
Should You Get a Cannabis Degree?
Whether you should earn a cannabis degree depends on what you want to do with your career. If you want to work in cultivation or pharmacology, you need to learn specifically about cannabis as a plant and a substance. Focusing on cannabis-related coursework or research can boost your chances of landing a job in the field.
Corva says that jobs requiring knowledge of cannabis and cannabis policy are proliferating in both the public and private sectors, though few in-depth degree programs exist to help potential employers successfully fill these roles.
"Legal cannabis is not a free market, in fact, it is the most tightly regulated market there is," he said. "Everywhere there is a new legal situation. There is a massive growth in public sector jobs, as well as nonprofits that are administering equity grants or community reinvestment grants."
However, if you want to work in accounting or brand management, Papillion recommends sticking with more traditional classes. This allows you to apply your business skills to the cannabis industry without having to take any cannabis classes.
Don't skimp when researching cannabis programs, especially when it comes to for-profit colleges.
"The quality of [cannabis] programs can vary widely, so it is vital for potential students to do their due diligence," Morgan Fox, media relations director for the National Cannabis Industry Association, told BestColleges.
Is a Cannabis Degree Necessary for Career Success?
Cannabis industry experts note that historically excluded populations have been disproportionately harmed and incarcerated due to punitive drug laws. While many are forced into jail for marijuana sales and possession, those with the right resources are profiting off a growing industry.
Education may be the key to resolving some of these contradictions and inequities within the cannabis industry. But a traditional college degree might not be the best way to increase access to knowledge and resources.
"The cannabis industry needs … pharmacologists, lab testing operators, cultivators, cultivation managers, and right now it's hard to access that labor."
― Natalie Papillion, founder and executive director of The Equity Organization
[QUOTE CENTER] "The cannabis industry needs … pharmacologists, lab testing operators, cultivators, cultivation managers, and right now it's hard to access that labor." — Natalie Papillion, founder and executive director of The Equity Organization
"The cannabis industry needs labor. They're going to need to have pharmacologists, lab testing operators, cultivators, cultivation managers, and right now it's hard to access that labor," Papillion said. "There's a real opportunity to use more forms of education that don't involve people sitting in the classroom."
According to Papillion, companies in the cannabis industry could utilize apprenticeships to train people on the job. Trade schools could also make affordable programs to introduce lab techs and cultivators to the industry more quickly.
Massachusetts is one leader in this respect, having introduced the CultivatEDprogram in 2019, a jails-to-jobs initiative that allows those with criminal records to enroll in cannabis classes at community colleges. The program also offers education, employment opportunities, and legal services to people who have been negatively impacted by federal drug policy.
What Does the Future of Cannabis Education Hold?
In 20 years, will it be normal for high school graduates to attend college to major in marijuana? Industry experts predict that more cannabis-related programs will begin popping up. It's also in cannabis companies' best interest to invest in and encourage educational opportunities within the industry.
"You can't throw people into this Wild West and expect success without investing in educational opportunities that are legitimate and up to date and well resourced," said Papillion.
At Cal Poly Humboldt, Corva says he was unsure how excited parents and guardians may be that their child would be majoring in cannabis studies. However, he said, their enthusiasm did not pose much of an issue.
"Very early on, almost right away, [families would] come up and look at what's going on, and both parents say, 'Finally, this is happening.' I have had so much positive feedback from parents."
The truth is that creating a program in cannabis studies isn't easy. With so many states still debating marijuana regulations, the legal aspects of these programs remain convoluted. At the University of California, Davis' Cannabis and Hemp Research Center, for example, researchers must take care to not intentionally or unintentionally cross any legal boundaries.
"[Cannabis] course[s] and degree-track programs … are certainly going to spur more interest in the field as a career and will help drive innovation that could create all sorts of additional opportunities."
― Morgan Fox, media relations director for the National Cannabis Industry Association
"Center leadership has to pay close attention to both state and federal regulations, especially as they evolve, to communicate to campus researchers what they can and cannot do to advance knowledge and understanding in this field," said Perry King, then-executive analyst for the vice chancellor at the UC Davis Office of Research, in an interview with BestColleges.
Ultimately, though, it makes sense for colleges to continue creating cannabis studies programs, especially when there's such high demand from both students and the industry itself.
As Fox said, "[Cannabis] course[s] and degree-track programs being offered in higher education are certainly going to spur more interest in the field as a career and will help drive innovation that could create all sorts of additional opportunities."