As federal lawmakers in Washington continue to slow-walk — or outright oppose — the legalisation of marijuana, the budding industry is plowing ahead making crucial inroads with another institution of prestige to help lend it legitimacy: higher education.
Five universities — three public state schools and two private Catholic colleges — have partnered with cannabis education company Green Flower Media to roll out first-of-their-kind online certificate programmes beginning in June, The Independent has learned, with roughly two dozen other accredited higher education institutions also considering partnerships.
Despite the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) listing cannabis as a Schedule I drug off limits for sale and use by the public, 11 states plus Washington, DC, have legalised recreational marijuana, and 33 other states have approved its medicinal use.
In most of those states, marijuana dispensaries have been deemed “essential” businesses during the coronavirus crisis.
The US House passed a sweeping bill earlier this month that would reverse a rule prohibiting cannabis companies from using traditional banking and financial institutions, which would allow more small businesses within the industry to access money through the Treasury Department’s relief programmes aimed at keeping workers on payrolls during the health crisis.
The partnership between cannabis and higher education couldn’t come at a better time: With uncertainty swirling among college administrators about a return to in-person classes for the fall semester and millions of workers being laid off nationwide, universities have been scrambling for ways to beef up their online course offerings.
“With Covid, I think there are going to be lots of people who lose their jobs and think, ‘I have to try to do something else.’ Cannabis will be one of those as a growing industry,” said Steve VandenAvond, vice president for extended learning and community engagement at Northern Michigan University, one of the five schools piloting the new certificate programmes.
The other universities whose night schools have struck deals with Green Flower are Florida Atlantic University, a California state school that will be announced when its programming launches later this summer, the University of San Diego, and Mt. Aloysius College in Pennsylvania.
While the Green Flower certificates are not, themselves, regulated by any federal accrediting agency, they carry significant weight within the industry, which is starved for specially trained cannabis horticulturists, medical application specialists, and compliance experts.
The partnership with the established universities is a natural alliance, helping to boost the legitimacy of Green Flower’s course offerings in a field that is not legally recognised at the federal level.
At the same time, Green Flower does most of the operational heavy lifting: curating a curriculum that university administrators insist is every bit as rigorous as their other, more traditional offerings; recruiting experts to teach the classes and advise students; and administering it all via Green Flower’s online learning platform, which would otherwise cost universities millions of dollars to develop independently.
“It’s a huge statement that it’s time to legitimise this industry that is in true need of educated and trained workers,” said Green Flower Media CEO Max Simon.
The 405-hour programmes, which include course offerings on legal compliance, business management, horticulture, and medical applications, are all run through the colleges’ continuing education schools that are typically geared towards working adults seeking career changes or advancements in their own fields but who don’t have the specialised skills to do so.
A certificate programme runs each student roughly $3,000 for three courses and lasts a total of 24 weeks.
In many of the states where it is legal, cannabis has become too big to fail.
The industry employs hundreds of thousands of people and has a revenue stream of more than $12bn annually.
Yet it still faces obstacles in Washington, with Republicans, who control the US Senate, mostly opposed to its federal legalisation.
Senate Republicans have derailed previous proposals to legalise or continue to normalise marijuana by proposing to limit the amount of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical compound that gets you high, in products, among other measures that industry leaders argue would make their businesses untenable.
And Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who largely controls which bills come to the floor for votes and which do not, is a staunch opponent of legalisation (though he does champion hemp as an agricultural product for its diversity of uses, largely because the hemp industry is relatively strong in his home state).
Mr VandenAvond and other school administrators are confident after hearing from several cannabis industry leaders that there is a real market for specialised cannabis workers and that Green Flower isn’t promising more than its advertising in terms of job prospects, like some previous for-profit education entities that have become lightning rods of criticism and fraud claims.
In 2017, Northern Michigan became the first school in the country to offer an accredited four-year bachelor degree in medicinal plant chemistry. Professors from that programme helped Mr VandenAvond review and assess Green Flower’s course work. They came away thoroughly impressed, Mr VandenAvond said.
David Haschak, the dean of Mt Aloysius’ school of business, arts, and sciences, agrees.
“We have chosen Green Flower as an academic partner because they have assembled an extraordinary team of experts fully prepared to quickly deliver this specialised education to professionals across the country so that they may effectively and safely execute their responsibilities,” Mr Haschak said in a statement this week.