OH: Local Cannabis School Startup Believes Its Filling A National Need

Photo Credit: Austin Briggs

Almost immediately after the Cleveland School of Cannabis began its first introductory classes on marijuana in January 2017, the facility’s small staff was overwhelmed with interest from prospective students.

“It was crazy. We just weren’t ready for the demand,” said founder Austin Briggs. “The phone was ringing off the hook. We had to turn it off.”

But it was a good problem to have.

“At that time, that’s when I realized we were really on to something.”

Briggs’ for-profit school — which was originally dubbed the Cleveland Cannabis College, but the “college” needed dropped before getting state approval — marked its official launch in Independence with those first classes last year. It’s a unique fit for the nascent marijuana industry not just in Ohio — which is preparing for a medical marijuana program to take effect Sept. 8 — but across the country.

In December, after just less than a year in business, the school received state approval from the Ohio State Board of Career Colleges and Schools. That appears to make it the only state-approved cannabis career school east of Colorado and one of just a few of its kind in the country.

Briggs saw a need for education in the budding cannabis industry first-hand after working with a friend’s cultivation operation in California, which eventually put him on the path to creating the Cleveland school. But he was unsure of how the market would really react — or whether the operation would even be welcomed in Ohio where Briggs said he faced a lot of pushback on the local level.

“It was a big if to our company,” Briggs said. “We knew we could sell these intro classes. But no one has had a certificate program before, at least not like this.”

Students are already flocking from across the country for the classes, Briggs said. Several fly to Cleveland from out west, where the school is coordinating internships at cultivation sites in Oregon. One student has driven up from North Carolina.

After a busy first year, the school is now poised for explosive growth as it fills an unmet need in the marijuana sector for skilled workers.

Briggs didn’t always have such a promising business in the cannabis sector in front of him. He wasn’t even thinking of getting in the industry in some form a few years ago, let alone running a school supporting it. Indeed, Briggs’s history with marijuana had actually caused some troubles for him in the past.

From LA to Ohio

Briggs, 31, a native of Cleveland Heights, was kicked out of his house at 17 by his mother for using marijuana. Looking back, he said he shouldn’t have been using the drug recreationally while in high school. But he also doesn’t agree with having been kicked out. (He said his relationship with his mother today is very good.)

After graduating from Kent State University in 2010, where he studied entrepreneurship, Briggs bought and flipped his first house, using some of the money to move to Los Angeles. In California, Briggs moved into a spare space in a buddy’s studio, where he continued some of his work with photos and videos and matriculated into sound engineering.

But he was unfulfilled and quickly tired of the “egos in entertainment.”

Briggs learned of a friend’s cultivation operation and invested around $15,000 of his savings into it. (That facility no longer exists, but the business owner now runs a California marijuana processing plant.)

“After getting kicked out of my house for using cannabis, I though the illegality of using cannabis created social issues that I could feel good about changing,” Briggs said.

But he realized he knew nothing about the business. So he sought education. There was only one or two schools in the country doing that, but Briggs felt the programs weren’t very rigorous.

Meanwhile, while helping with the grow site, Briggs saw a lot of turnover in staff and wondered why there wasn’t a school offering some certified programs.

“I realized there was a great need on the business side and everything was pointing toward education being a huge opportunity in the sector,” he said. “I’m thinking, I’m going to be the leader in cannabis education. This was a huge opportunity I couldn’t pass on.”

Briggs then looked to establish his school in Northeast Ohio. It would’ve been easier to do so out West, but he returned to the state to be closer to his now 4-year-old son. Between late summer and fall 2016, Briggs began seeking space around Cleveland and set up a website.

Seven months later, the school essentially was set up.

The next level

Briggs bought and flipped another house in Cleveland Heights from the county land bank, using the proceeds to pull a $65,000 line of credit to fuel the business. His connections in the sector, along with a partnership he struck with Pennsylvania-marketing firm Faces International, helped connect him with advisers and instructors to get the school started up.

Today, the school counts a staff of eight plus 10 instructors (two of whom are on staff). The schools takes up about 4,400 square feet of space on two floors in its Independence office building.

It logged revenue of $360,000 in 2017 — which excludes another $270,000 in receivables for courses some students are still paying off (a payment plan lets course takers cover 40% of their costs upfront then pay the rest down).

The cannabis school has three different programs. Horticulture starts with plant basics then grows into marijuana. The business course covers how to run a dispensary and cultivation center. And the medical applications course is targeted toward education for doctors. An executive program brings all three programs together.

“There are lots of people from outside the industry trying to get involved,” Briggs said. “And that’s who we decided to cater to.”

The school, citing research from marijuana staffing and human resources agency Mary Jane Staffing, estimates Ohio will have 2,000 jobs as the young industry — limited in the number of state-awarded operating licenses available — becomes operational. The firm estimates there are 200,000 jobs today in the country in the cannabis industry, and it expects that number to grow to 630,000 by 2025.

“We have thousands of jobs in the industry becoming available and no qualified people to take them,” Briggs said. “Sometimes people are hired from out of state. And the perception is these people know what they’re doing, but you can’t really know. They’ll sell you on the fact they’ve been in a mature market. But that doesn’t mean they know what they’re doing.”

One of the school’s first instructors, who still teaches there, is Rob Ryan, executive director of the Ohio Patients Network. The group formed in 2001 with the express purpose of legalizing cannabis for medical use.

“This is preparing a workforce for an up-and-coming economic activity,” Ryan said. “So I applaud what they’re doing.”

Ryan is closely plugged in to all of the state’s efforts to legalize marijuana in the past 17 years, often consulting with stakeholders and politicians across the country.

“I’ve had some discussions with some manufacturing types out of state and one of the things I hear is that they take someone into processing or extraction, it takes some time to get them trained,” Briggs said. “This training (from the school) cuts down on their training, which is time they could be doing something else. So I think it’s a great thing. And I’m surprised he doesn’t have some competitors.”

Briggs said he’s working to launch online courses in the fall. He’s also considering an expansion across Ohio with possible satellite offices in either Columbus or Cincinnati. He also wants to set up internships and tours with Ohio companies — but it’s a little too early, and laws here may be too onerous, for that to happen just yet.

Later this year, he’ll likely be looking for more investors to help take the business to the next level.

But the response from possible funding sources in Ohio has been tepid thus far.

“As hard as it is to raise money here, it’s as easy in California or Colorado,” Briggs said. “I would advise the investment community here to wake up or they’re going to miss out on a lot of opportunities.”