Are Cannabis Degrees Legit?
- With the success of marijuana legalization, cannabis degrees and programs are growing.
- 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.
- Focus your research on reputable colleges and universities with regional accreditation.
Ever since California legalized medical marijuana in 1996, more and more states have followed suit. Marijuana is now legal recreationally in 11 states and legal for medical purposes in 33 states. With legalization, cannabis has emerged as an entirely new industry — and colleges and universities are taking note.
In fact, the cannabis industry supported about 243,700 full-time jobs as of February 2020, according to Leafly. That figure amounts to an annual job growth of 15%.
"This applies … to a wide array of fields that were formerly not heavily involved in the cannabis market, such as branding experts, facilities, IT, legal/compliance, and a whole slew of other existing professions," said Morgan Fox, media relations director for the National Cannabis Industry Association.
There's no question that the cannabis industry needs labor, and these workers need the expertise and skills to work in an emerging field. This is where colleges come in.
As of fall 2019, nearly 20 colleges and universities offered courses or programs related to cannabis, according to the Equity Organization.
Higher education institutions are beginning to design cannabis-related programs to prepare students for this budding industry, with the first four-year degree in medicinal plant chemistry established at Northern Michigan University in 2017. Since then, cannabis colleges, degrees, and courses have been cropping up around the country.
For example, the University of Denver offers a business of marijuana course. In New Jersey, Stockton University's minor in cannabis studies covers cannabis law and business operations. Students at Lake Superior University can pursue associate and bachelor's degrees in cannabis chemistry. As of fall 2019, nearly 20 colleges and universities offered courses or programs related to cannabis, according to the Equity Organization.
Universities have also established research centers to catch up with countries pushing forward cannabis research efforts, like Israel, Canada, and the Netherlands. In January, the University of California, Davis, established a Cannabis and Hemp Research Center to advance research in the industry.
Of course, just as legalization hasn't occurred without growing pains, the introduction of cannabis into the education space has faced its own difficulties.
Are Cannabis College Programs and Degrees Legitimate (and Legal)?
While marijuana remains illegal at the federal level and in many states, academic programs in cannabis are legal insofar as they don't involve the sale or possession of marijuana. However, the legal ground is certainly ambiguous, and schools offering these programs have to monitor federal regulations to ensure their research and activities aren't in conflict.
"Right now there's a lack of knowledge for everyone in the space," according to Natalie Papillion, founder and executive director of the Equity Organization. Due to this uncertainty, it's important to enroll in a school that you can trust if you plan on pursuing a degree in the cannabis field.
A handful of private institutions have popped up in recent years, offering curricula entirely dedicated to cannabis studies. But they're not always trustworthy.
In higher education, schools and degrees prove their legitimacy with accreditation. Currently, though, no accreditation agencies exist for cannabis-related education. Without national legalization of marijuana, the federal government has no incentive to create an accreditation agency. Plus, states don't really have the bandwidth to create an accreditation system specifically for cannabis-related education.
The good news: Public universities hold regional accreditation, which means that cannabis courses and degrees fall under that general accreditation status.
The bad news: Accreditation — or lack thereof — really becomes an issue when it comes to for-profit schools. A handful of private institutions have popped up in recent years, offering curricula entirely dedicated to cannabis studies. But they're not always trustworthy.
"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," Papillion said.
Instead, the reputations of these institutions usually rely on word of mouth.
Try to take courses from public universities with regional accreditation if you can. But if that's not possible, make sure you contact your prospective school before applying. Do your research, and do it thoroughly. Ask about the curriculum, instructor qualifications, retention and graduation rates, and job placement after graduation. You can also reach out to potential employers to ask about a school's reputation.
Do You Need a Cannabis Degree to Succeed in the Industry?
The question of access has always been a tricky issue when it comes to higher education. And the question of "Who can afford to go to college?" becomes increasingly pertinent as tuition prices climb higher and student debt skyrockets.
When you add cannabis-related education to the mix, this issue becomes even tricker. Cannabis industry experts have pointed out that marginalized populations have been disproportionately harmed and incarcerated due to punitive drug laws. Yet, at the same time people are being put in jail for marijuana sales and possession, people with the right resources are profiting off a growing cannabis industry.
Education might be the key to resolving some of these contradictions and inequalities that are endemic to the cannabis industry, but a traditional college education might not be the best way to increase access to knowledge and resources.
[Apprenticeships] would allow people without the resources to attend college to gain experience through a more accessible pathway.
After all, not everyone can afford a four-year bachelor's degree, and Papillion believes in the promise of other cannabis-related education opportunities apart from those found at colleges and universities.
"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," she said. "There's a real opportunity to use more forms of education that don't involve people sitting in the classroom."
Companies in the cannabis industry could provide apprenticeships, Papillion added, essentially training people on the job. This would allow people without the resources to attend college to gain experience through a more accessible pathway. Vocational schools could also offer affordable programs that could get lab techs and cultivators into the industry more quickly.
Massachusetts has been a leader in this respect. The state recently introduced the CultivatED program — a jails-to-jobs initiative that allows people with criminal records to enroll in cannabis-related courses at community colleges. The program also offers financial assistance, job training, and legal help to people who have been negatively affected by federal drug policy.
The state claims that this program is the first of its kind. If it succeeds, it may spur other states or schools to create similar initiatives.
What Does the Future Hold?
In 20 years, will it be normal for high school graduates to head off to college determined to major in marijuana?
Industry experts predict that more and more cannabis-related programs will appear. It's also in cannabis companies' best interest to invest in and encourage educational opportunities.
"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," Papillion said.
The fact of the matter is, creating a program in cannabis studies isn't easy. With so many states still debating marijuana regulations, the legal aspects of these programs can seem like a tangled web.
“[Cannabis] course 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.”
At the research center at UC Davis, for example, researchers must be careful not to cross any legal boundaries.
"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, executive analyst for the vice chancellor at the university's Office of Research.
But ultimately, it makes sense for higher education institutions to keep creating cannabis-related programs, especially when there's such a high demand from both students and the industry.
"Course 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," Fox said.
Should You Get a Cannabis Degree or Go to Cannabis College?
That answer is not quite a resounding yes. It's more of a maybe, if it's right for you.
Actually, the answer largely 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 certainly boost your chances of landing a job in the field.
But if you want to work in accounting or brand management, consider sticking with more traditional classes. You can apply these business skills directly to the cannabis industry without taking a cannabis studies course. They're likely to be more effective in preparing you for your career, Papillion advised.
Remember, don't skimp when you're researching cannabis programs — especially when it comes to for-profit institutions: "The quality of these programs can vary widely, so it is vital for potential students to do their due diligence," Fox reminds students.
Finally, keep in mind that despite calls of a "green rush" in the cannabis industry, you'll have to work hard and remain patient. Very few people become quick-minted millionaires over the course of a few months.
With a fair amount of persistence and a realistic outlook, though, enrolling in a cannabis course could be the first step in a long and successful career.