What Are Cannabis Colleges, Exactly? And Are They Legit?

Written by BlackbirdGo October 28, 2018
The Industry

Disclaimer: Keep out of reach of children. For use only by adults 21 years of age and older.

With changes in public attitudes about cannabis in general—as well as meaningful legislative victories for those who would like to see the sale of cannabis products fully legalized—new opportunities have emerged for people looking to make a living in communities throughout the country.

Those opportunities extend far beyond “budtending” (the industry term for retail floor sales and service) and store management. In fact, there is a plethora of behind-the-scenes work that must be done just to get the variety of cannabis products consumers purchase each day to the point of sale: marijuana cultivation, product conception and manufacturing, packaging, logistics management and execution, and, when it comes to getting customers in the door as well products on shelves without earning the ire of the federal trade commission, inside sales and multichannel marketing.

Suffice it to say, in an emergent mainstream industry that is predicted to enter a long-term period of booming business, it’s little wonder that cannabis industry job growth is expected to double by 2021.

With increasing availability of cannabis-related jobs on the horizon, there’s a need for personnel to fill those positions. Though both recreational and medicinal cannabis have been available in certain regions of the United States for nearly a decade, it is still a niche industry, and it is difficult to find workers with skills specifically related to cannabusiness. In fact, without some way to inform prospective cannabis industry professionals about the opportunities in the business and the competencies needed to take advantage of them, the cannabis industry could find itself facing a significant talent gap in just five years. This could spell trouble for cannabis operations hoping to rapidly scale.

Enter the “cannabis college”—a term that refers to a variety of educational organizations of varying pedigree designed to outfit would-be cannabis industry professionals with the specific skills and knowledge they’ll need to get into the business.

The courses offered by these organizations vary—as do the outcomes pertaining to them.

Some institutions, like Oakland’s Oaksterdam University and the Cannabis Training University, offer comprehensive training (and even organizational certifications) in marijuana horticulture and the broader industry but lack formal accreditation from organizations like the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. While this lack of accreditation may not necessarily indicate the real-life value of the education completed at such institutions, it is important that prospective students understand that “degrees” or certifications earned at these institutions may not hold weight outside of the industry or even outside of the immediate markets in which these schools are located.

Other institutions do carry regional accreditation and the advantages associated with it. These institutions tend to be long-established universities like U.C. Davis, the University of Denver, and Vanderbilt, which offer one-off courses in cannabis physiology, marijuana and law, and Northern Michigan University, which offers an undergraduate degree program in medicinal plant chemistry, allowing students to choose tracks in entrepreneurship or advanced topics in biology and chemistry.

The latter of these two types of “cannabis colleges” is likely to provide professionals with a greater breadth of options; however, a formal university education will (generally speaking) come at a greater cost to most and can be inaccessible to a large swath of the population.

It should also be noted that cannabis-specific education isn’t always necessary to enter the business. A variety of soft skills like building rapport, flexibility, customer service, and communication go a long way toward helping to adapt one’s hard skills like chemistry, logistics management, accounting, or marketing to a new industry, so professionals looking to pivot into cannabusiness may be able to do so with greater ease than they might think.

While a college or university degree hasn’t always been necessary to develop, market, and sell cannabis products, increasing consumer demand and a growing variety of product offerings have gradually changed the relationship that some cannabusinesses have with formal education. As marijuana goes mainstream, some businesses are seeking out talent with scientific subject knowledge about manufacturing, biology, and horticulture or formal training in business administration, marketing, networking, and sales.

As the cannabis industry grows and businesses grow with it, business owners facing anxiety about scaling intelligently may find themselves relying on “traditional” corporate hiring practices, buoyed by the hope that adopting “tried and true” approaches from other industries (which many cannabusiness owners often come from) will lead them to the success they’ve seen elsewhere. Much in the way that state and municipal legislation has formally “legitimized” corporate cannabis throughout the United States, some believe that formal education may legitimize the credentials of their desired personnel, replacing the stereotype of scrappy closet growers and homeopathic “woo” salespeople with an image that may read as more reliable and “smart” to investors.

Such shifts do not come without their costs, however, and it should be noted that some could rightly argue that corporatizing cannabis is an act of gentrification and violent displacement. While home-growers, sellers, and manufacturers may not have the resources or mainstream image of corporate cannabis, it is arguably their labor—which spans generations—and their sacrifices that have paved the way for marijuana’s current boom. By overemphasizing formal education as a necessary marker of competence where hiring practices in cannabusiness is concerned, cannabis industry professionals risk creating a gateway that prevents entry for talented people who possess meaningful subject and cultural knowledge. This may also reinforce many of the problematic, exclusionary, classist, and often racist attitudes that have dogged other formal institutions (like law enforcement) in their dealings with cannabis and the people who’ve grown, manufactured, bought, and sold it for much of the United States’ history.

To combat these risks, leaders in cannabis should prioritize hiring from a diversity of experiences and focus on extending opportunities for talent to learn about the industry as it grows. Being mindful and generous in sharing education with incoming personnel may very well help to mitigate a talent gap—and keep cannabis ethical as it becomes ever more culturally viable.