Are Cannabis Degrees Legit?

Are Cannabis Degrees Legit?
portrait of Kasia Kovacs
By Kasia Kovacs

Published on April 20, 2021

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Ever since California legalized medical marijuana in 1996, more and more states have followed suit. Marijuana is now legal recreationally in 16 states and legal for medical purposes in 36. With legalization, cannabis has emerged as an entirely new industry — and colleges and universities are taking note.

As of February 2021, the cannabis industry supports approximately 321,000 full-time jobs in the U.S. That figure amounts to an annual job growth of 32%. The cannabis 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 2021, the cannabis industry supports approximately 321,000 full-time jobs in the U.S. That figure amounts to an annual job growth of 32%.

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.

Colleges have also established research centers to catch up with the countries pushing forward cannabis research efforts, such as Israel, Canada, and the Netherlands. In January 2020, the University of California, Davis, established the Cannabis and Hemp Research Center.

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 most states, academic programs in cannabis are legal, so long as they don't involve the sale or possession of marijuana. That legal ground is nevertheless ambiguous, and any schools offering such programs must 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 [cannabis] space," said Natalie Papillion, founder and executive director of The Equity Organization. Due to this uncertainty, it's important to enroll in a school you can trust if you plan on pursuing a degree in cannabis studies.

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 classes and degrees fall under that general accreditation status. Accreditation — or lack thereof — mainly becomes an issue with for-profit schools, which are notorious for 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 Papillion.

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.

Despite evidence of a “green rush” in the cannabis industry, you’ll have to work hard and be patient.

But 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," said Morgan Fox, media relations director of the National Cannabis Industry Association.

Despite evidence of a "green rush" in the cannabis industry, you'll have to work hard and be patient. Very few people become quick-minted millionaires over the course of just a few months. But with a fair amount of persistence and a realistic outlook, enrolling in a cannabis studies program or class could be the first step in a long, successful career.

Is a Cannabis Degree Necessary for Career Success?

Cannabis industry experts note that marginalized 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.”. Source: — 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 recently introduced the CultivatED program, a jails-to-jobs initiative that allows those with criminal records to enroll in cannabis classes at community colleges. The program also offers financial assistance, job training, and legal help 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.

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 UC Davis's 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.”. Source: — Morgan Fox, Media Relations Director of 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, executive analyst for the vice chancellor at the UC Davis Office of Research.

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."


Editor's Note: This article contains general information and is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice. Please consult a professional advisor before making decisions about legal issues.


Feature Image: nikoendres / iStock / Getty Images Plus

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