Roanoke College Unveils Cannabis Studies Program

Roanoke College is one of the first schools on the East Coast to offer a cannabis studies program — complete with two majors and a minor. Here is what students can expect.
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Published on February 2, 2024
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  • Roanoke College announced a new cannabis studies program beginning in fall 2024.
  • The program will offer two majors, focused on cannabis science or cannabis social justice and policy, and one minor.
  • Students will be learning from hemp, a type of cannabis plant with a low concentration of the psychoactive substance.

Roanoke College in Virginia is offering students a means to enter the soon-to-be projected $40 billion cannabis industry.

The small, liberal arts college announced it will offer a cannabis studies program this fall, complete with two majors and one minor. Students can choose between receiving a bachelor of science in cannabis science or cannabis social justice and policy.

Dr. DorothyBelle Poli, a biology professor at Roanoke College, designed the one-of-a-kind program to teach students about the cannabis plant and its practical applications.

"I'm a botanist by training. And as a botanist by training, I try to bring in as much plant material into any course that I teach," she told BestColleges. "Whether that's an evolution class, or cell biology class, and plants as drugs is always a very popular concept."

However, since cannabis is still federally classified as a Schedule I substance, alongside drugs such as heroin and ecstasy, students can't use or interact with the marijuana plant.

Thankfully, Virginia has a rich history of cultivating hemp, which is the same species of plant but with a lower concentration of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive substance in cannabis.

With the opportunity to study hemp and learn from alums in the field and industry professionals, Poli hopes the program will draw more students to Roanoke.

"Because there are hardly any [cannabis] programs on the East Coast, let alone full-blown programs and not just a certificate, we have a great opportunity to bring students here," Poli said.

'Growing' a Cannabis Program

At first, no one believed a cannabis studies program could be offered at Roanoke, a small liberal arts school in the South, Poli explained. She decided to develop a team of lawyers, former students who had gone into the industry, and a board member to figure out how to design a program focused on cannabis and get it approved.

Poli also visited other universities that teach cannabis-centered courses to meet with faculty and see what works and what doesn't in building a cannabis studies program.

"[We] talked to their leadership and tried to figure out what they do, how they do it, why they picked the way they did it and tried to learn best practices and what to avoid from each one," she said. "It was interesting to see commonality as well as how different institution's structure mattered in developing a program."

One of the largest hurdles was to make sure the program was legally compliant. While Roanoke is a private school and immune from certain state regulations, it still must comply with state and federal drug laws.

While students and researchers are barred from "plant-touching," Virginia allows universities to cultivate hemp for research reasons, as long as the THC content does not exceed 0.3%.

Students will also have the unique opportunity to learn from alums in the field and industry leaders, although Poli cautioned that the university is unable to partner with any organization or person that touches the plant, due to the school's drug-free status.

"We can't send our kids to internships there [and] we can't have job fairs with them on campus. It is tricky. To me, that's the most bizarre piece of the whole thing: how weird the laws are and how that interacts with daily life."

Training Students for a Future in the Cannabis Industry

The program will officially begin in fall 2024. Sample courses include "Cannabis & Society," "Cannabis and Regulations," "Cannabis and Pop Culture," and "Cannabis and Race."

Classes will explore how cannabis has impacted human behavior, how the plant has been used and regulated by humans over generations, how cannabis has been portrayed in pop culture and social media, and the relationship between race and cannabis.

On top of cultivating hemp, students get to learn about the history of Virginians using hemp, dating back to the 17th century.

"Virginia has a huge hemp history. There are lots of hemp farms," Poli said. "...You want to understand where your history is coming from."

One course, "Cannabis and Entomology," was offered in the spring and was immediately filled by interested students, with a waiting list three times as long, according to Poli.

"Since we've announced, I have been [asked] nonstop about stuff. Admissions is telling me that the phone is ringing, and people are asking [about the program] when they're coming to visit … so I think the interest will be strong," she said.

With an industry that is projected to reach at least $40 billion in just a few years, Poli says that a degree in cannabis studies can benefit most students, whether or not they want to go directly into the cannabis industry.

"I'm hoping that our graduates … are much more beneficial employees, right from the start in anything analytical or growth connected," she said. "Just about any direction you want to go, in today's world, in a market that has a $40 billion price tag is impacted and could benefit with some guidance from formal education."