A ‘Budding’ New Degree: Inside Cal Poly Humboldt’s New Cannabis Studies Program

Cal Poly Humboldt's marijuana major launches this fall. Here's how the program will prepare students for careers created by the $30 billion cannabis industry.
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Published on April 20, 2023
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  • Cal Poly Humboldt is one of the first universities to offer a bachelor's degree in cannabis studies.
  • The degree will be housed in the Department of Sociology.
  • The program will include new core classes centering on cannabis and concentrations in Equity & Social Justice and Environmental Stewardship.

America's cannabis capital will soon be home to one of the nation's first bachelor's degree programs in cannabis studies.

Since the late 1960s, Northern California's so-called "Emerald Triangle" — a region encompassing Humboldt, Mendocino, and Trinity counties — produced copious amounts of cannabis for illicit and now legal markets.

It's an economic engine that in 2019 inspired incoming Humboldt State University President Tom Jackson to wonder: Why didn't the institution have an academic program studying cannabis?

Humboldt State is now California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt, and this fall, nearly four years into Jackson's tenure, Cal Poly Humboldt will be one of the first universities in the country to offer a bachelor's degree program in cannabis studies.

But designing a cannabis studies major in California – where voters in 2016 approved Proposition 64, legalizing adult-use cannabis and commercial sales – isn't as easy as it may seem.

While several universities in California offer research programs on cannabis, including University of California campuses at Berkeley, Irvine, Los Angeles, San Diego, Riverside, and Davis, none offer degrees on cannabis, which remains federally illegal and is highly regulated by the state.

To learn more about Cal Poly Humboldt's new degree, BestColleges connected with Dominic Corva, Ph.D., director of its new cannabis studies program. He is an associate professor of sociology and co-directs the university's Institute for Interdisciplinary Marijuana Research with sociology professor Josh Meisel, Ph.D.

Corva said Cal Poly Humboldt's program is unique and, to his knowledge, the first cannabis degree program of its type.

"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," he said.

Here's how the cannabis degree program was developed and what students interested in careers in cannabis need to know.

A Degree Designed for a Highly Regulated Industry

Offering a cannabis studies degree program didn't just make sense for Northern California's flagship state university, it turned out to be a critical component in helping it become the state's third polytechnic university.

Jackson connected with Corva and Meisel about designing a cannabis-focused degree program shortly after taking the helm at Humboldt State, Corva said.

Not long after, the school started its application to the California State University (CSU) system to become a polytechnic university. And it needed three additional programs to qualify for the designation.

"Since we had just completed the preliminary phase [of our cannabis degree proposal], we were asked to fast-track formal development under the guidance of then-Vice Provost Mary Oling Sisay," Corva explained.

But because of the plant's murky legal status, Cal Poly Humboldt's new program "could not 'touch cannabis' nor train people to be in the industry," Corva said. So-called “plant-touching” operations in the cannabis industry include farming, manufacturing, laboratory testing, product distribution, and retail sales.

This meant that the program could not be part of the College of Professional Studies or the College of Natural Science, instead placing it in the Department of Sociology, which Corva says plays to his and Meisel's strengths as critical drug studies scholars.

This fall, Cal Poly Humboldt's four-year cannabis major program will offer new core classes centering on cannabis and two concentrations in Equity & Social Justice and Environmental Stewardship.

"It's an interdisciplinary, applied social science degree with a strong focus on critical thinking and engagement with a globalizing policy reform landscape," Corva said.

The program is "foundationally ethnobotanical," Corva explained. It will teach students about the deep history of the plant as well as how its use and cultivation globalized over at least 10,000 years, from hunter-gathering to colonialism to the Cold War to the present day.

"[Coursework is] constructively critical of legalization," he added, "so that students who choose professional pathways in the public or private sector aren't just implementing flawed and unworkable policies due to … entanglements with prohibition laws and culture."

Interest in Cannabis Studies Program Strong

So far, the program has received more than 100 applications and admitted 85 students, 18 of whom are confirmed first-year cannabis studies majors for the fall semester, according to Corva. The opening cohort will also include a handful of current Humboldt students who are undeclared but interested in the program.

"Last year's recruitment process was not as robust as it could have been, since there was nothing in the catalog and it wasn't well-known by the admissions and recruiting folks here," he said. "... I am very, very happy with this level of interest in the program to start and anticipate a great deal more interest in the fall."

Corva said he was unsure how excited parents/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."

Preparing Students for Array of Cannabis Careers

Combined U.S. medical and recreational cannabis sales hit $30 billion in 2022 and could reach $33.6 billion by the end of 2023, according to Marijuana Business Daily.

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, is the most tightly regulated market there is," Corva 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."

Jobs related to cannabis policy and policy implementation are growing throughout California, the country and around the world, he explained, pointing out that Nicole Elliott, the director of California's Department of Cannabis Control, has an undergraduate degree in sociology.

"Our students will have a leg up if they want to go that way: regulation, consulting, compliance, political advocacy, and so forth, at every level of governance from cities to counties to states to countries."

Of course, Cal Poly Humboldt students also have the unique advantage of their institution's location amid the roots of California's cannabis industry. It gives them an advantage if they want to find an entry-level, local job – or see how the regulation of California's legal cannabis industry has impacted the region's economy.

In 2022, California dispensaries made $5.3 billion in taxable sales of recreational and medical marijuana, according to the California Department of Tax and Fee Administration, down 8.6% from 2021 sales. The drop can be attributed in large part to depressed wholesale prices, Marijuana Business Daily reported last February. That makes cannabis products cheaper for consumers, but has hit growers hard. CalMatters reported that same month that some of the Emerald Triangle cultivators are laying off employees and even shutting down their farms.

"You can study cannabis markets and business anywhere. You won't have as many in your backyard as you would [at Cal Poly Humboldt]," Corva said. "[The cannabis industry] is not irrelevant at all, but there's a guardrail that the institution can't formally direct students toward it, but it is in your backyard, and all around you."