When Paul Seaborn arrived at the University of Denver in 2011, Colorado was a year away from legalizing cannabis for recreational use and had allowed it medicinally for just a decade. Looking to provide some kind of education around pot, the business professor noticed his public policy students were particularly curious about the laws guiding medical and legal use in the state.
"That was really my sign students were interested" in learning more about the cannabis industry, he said, adding that companies in the sector would contact him asking "what we teach around all aspects of business."
A few years later, in 2017, he launched a course called the "Business of Marijuana," which examines the cannabis market as well as its history, legal situation and social impact.
"That's a foundation," he said. "We use that to dive into how this industry is unique in terms of management, accounting, finance, marketing — all the different aspects of business — and how they tend to go off in a little bit of a different direction when you're in the cannabis industry."
Along with figuring out what students need to know to participate in the burgeoning sector, Seaborn and other instructors looking to teach cannabis have to navigate a rigid, shifting and often limiting legal environment. Still, recent years have seen a growing number of classes, certificates and even degree tracks crop up at colleges and universities as institutions respond to demand for graduates with knowledge of cannabis in fields ranging from horticulture to public policy.
"It's tricky to get some of these (programs) going (at universities) before the legal industry is up and running," he said. "But as soon as it's up and running and there's a lot of demand, people are really anxious to see programs pop up."
A growing industry
So far, 34 states and the District of Columbia have legalized cannabis for medical purposes, and 10 states plus D.C. have legalized it for recreational use. The industry got a boost from the bipartisan federal Farm Bill signed late last year, which took hemp — a kind of cannabis with less than 0.3% THC (the compound that causes the "high" associated with pot) — out of the Controlled Substances Act, expanding opportunities for research and entrepreneurship in the industry.
With regulations and stigma around cannabis gradually receding, the industry's workforce needs are expected to pick up. The number of full-time, legal jobs in cannabis across the U.S. has reached more than 211,000, with about one-third created in 2018, according to one recent industry report. Legal sales alone totaled $10.8 billion last year, up 34% from 2017.
Despite the growth prospects, the cannabis sector is fragmented. That makes it difficult for colleges to know whether and how students will be able to put their knowledge to use.
"Instead of one cohesive industry at the regional, national or international level, what we have are all these mini markets," Seaborn said. "Colorado, Washington, Oregon, Canada — each one has a completely different set of rules, and the strategies and approaches that work tend to vary from market to market at this point."
College programs take root
Traditional colleges and universities have taken a few approaches to cannabis curriculum, including issue-specific overview classes as well as degree and certificate tracks that let students dig deeper into specialties such as business or cultivation.
Last fall, Stockton University, in New Jersey, launched an interdisciplinary minor in cannabis studies. The public institution opted to keep its curriculum open to a range of applications for the plant.
"We decided to treat it as any other industry, and I think that opened up more venues for us," said Ekaterina Sedia, the program's coordinator and an associate professor of biology at Stockton.
She rattled off a few potential applications: hospitality majors going on to run a smoking lounge; business majors aspiring to operate a dispensary; environmental studies majors working to improve the energy efficiency of growing operations.
So far, 40 students have officially declared the minor, and the two courses on offer — Introduction to Medical Marijuana and Cannabis Law — have been full the two semesters they have been available. Those students come from a wide range of majors, she noted, including biology, chemistry, environmental science, economics, hospitality and tourism, and the health sciences.
"It's tricky to get some of these (programs) going (at universities) before the legal industry is up and running. But as soon as it's up and running and there's a lot of demand, people are really anxious to see programs pop up."
Assistant professor, University of Denver Daniels College of Business
Many other courses and programs focus on cultivation. At the State University of New York System's (SUNY) Morrisville campus, a pioneering research initiative to grow cannabis (hemp) led to the creation of a cannabis industry minor, which begins this fall.
Blending elements of the university's business, horticulture and agricultural science, the minor will allow students to focus on specific areas, such as growing and processing cannabis.
"We figured it's a burgeoning industry, it's providing jobs for our students, maybe we should do something in it," said Kelly Hennigan, chair of the university's horticulture department.
Several other universities offer or have offered classes on the role of cannabis in related fields, including communications, journalism, law and public policy. And Northern Michigan University notes opportunities in cannabis for students in its medicinal plant chemistry major. Several unaccredited for-profit providers also offer education on the science and business of cannabis.
Although the courses and programs offered so far by traditional higher ed have been small in scale, Seaborn expects they will expand to include certificates, degrees and even centers of excellence. "It's not just a question for colleges and universities of (whether) they want to get involved, but how far do they want to go and how quickly," he said.
Hennigan advises colleges to align their cannabis programs with their strengths. "We're kind of staying in our lane," she said. "What we know is how to grow things."
'Just another crop'
That approach can help institutions navigate challenges such as the legal landscape for cannabis and perceptions about the type of student likely to sign up for such programs.
"There was a little bit of this 'nudge,' 'nudge,' thing, which I am not fond of," Stockton's Sedia said, adding that she tries to dispel notions "that there is any kind of specific student drawn to this (program), because this is not the case."
She reminds students they can earn the minor without ever having seen the cannabis plant. "You can work in the wine industry and not drink wine, you can be in pharmaceuticals and not use any prescription drugs," she said.
For Hennigan's students, cannabis is "just another crop" in a program that grows a wide range of specialty plants. "For us it's all the same," she said. "It's a plant. And if it gets students excited to talk about it, well that's a good thing, too."
Still, college students are often just aging into the target market for an industry that has had to distinguish itself as being strictly for adults — a potentially tricky balance, Seaborn said.
"We figured it's a burgeoning industry, it's providing jobs for our students, maybe we should do something in it."
Horticulture department chair, SUNY Morrisville
Another challenge for institutions considering cannabis curriculum is teaching students how to evaluate job options both for fit and viability. Colleges, too, must do their due diligence around partnerships in an industry in which the legal waters can be murky.
Stockton, which requires students in its cannabis studies minor to complete an internship in the industry, will have some help with that through a new set of partnerships. Among them, Thomas Jefferson University's Lambert Center for the Study of Medicinal Cannabis and Hemp will offer students internship and research opportunities. (Thomas Jefferson already offers graduate-level certificates in cannabis.)
Other partners — providing speakers, materials and internship opportunities — include Reliance Health Care's Relevant business unit, the New Jersey CannaBusiness Association and the New Jersey Cannabis Industry Association.
'Real demand' for knowledge
The need for more education on cannabis is particularly critical in the health sciences field, where practitioners frequently field patients' questions about proper use, said Michael McDonell, chair of Washington State University's Committee on Cannabis Policy, Research, and Outreach.
"Some of us are seeing it from a practical (standpoint) of we need to actually have something (about it) in our classes," he said. "We need (our staff) to be informed so they can provide appropriate education to our students."
The timing of new rules and regulations is also a factor. For instance, a long-awaited vote to legalize cannabis in New Jersey fell apart at the last minute over concerns for public health and the nuances of implementation — indicating efforts to time the launch of a program with broader legalization may be fraught.
Federal limits are "always hanging over the industry in so many ways," Seaborn said, which tends to give institutions pause on more aggressively pursuing cannabis curriculum.
"But all that being said, our students are entering this world whether we offer them some education or not," he added. "The industry is growing. There is a real demand for employees who understand business and the cannabis industry."