As students head off to college this fall, some of them in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula will be blazing a trail when it comes to new fields of study: growing and testing hemp and learning how to lead a cannabis business.
While most Michigan colleges and universities have yet to capitalize on the emerging pot industry, both Northern Michigan University and Lake Superior State University have developed specialized degree programs focused on fast-tracking graduates in cannabis careers.
If industry predictions are any indicator, talent is going to be an issue for Michigan’s burgeoning marijuana sector, especially as the state’s cannabis industry moves from caregivers to a commercial model. The entire industry is being transformed by stricter regulations and increased demand. In Michigan, cannabis is projected to become a $1.3 billion industry and employ nearly 28,000 people by 2022.
Cannabis businesses encompass medical and recreational marijuana, infused food and health products, textiles and other products derived from industrial hemp.
To help fill the need for analytical chemists for product quality assessment and assurance, Northern Michigan University launched a medicinal plant chemistry degree in fall 2017 and recently received state approval to grow and test hemp during the 2019-20 school year. The four-year degree program was one of the first in the nation, designed to prepare students for careers related to medicinal plant production, analysis and distribution.
“As we see the industry mature and become more standardized, people with formal education are going to be more sought after, especially on the analytical chemistry side,” said Brandon Canfield, PhD, associate professor of chemistry who helped launch the medicinal plant chemistry degree at Marquette-based Northern Michigan University.
As marijuana goes mainstream, colleges across the state and nation are developing cannabis-related courses and, in some cases, degree programs focused on the industry. The legalization of cannabis for medicinal use in 33 states and adult recreational use in 10 states and Canada continues to fuel the need for skilled workers.
The goal, educators say, is to help professionalize the industry and position students for emerging careers in cultivation, research, testing, transportation, lobbying, entrepreneurship, marketing, advocacy and more.
“I think it’s higher education’s job, in general, to prepare people for the workforce and meet workforce needs,” said Kimberly Muller, PhD, dean of the College of Innovation and Solutions at Sault St. Marie-based Lake Superior State University, which received state approval for a new cannabis chemistry program and a bachelor’s of science in cannabis business.
“This industry is no different...and I do think that for people who are interested in the cannabis industry, this degree can help launch them on that path,” Muller said.
By 2022, job growth in the U.S. cannabis sector is set to outpace health care and technology and create more than 467,000 jobs, according to Arcview Market Research, which tracks and forecasts cannabis industry trends. There is growing momentum for federal legalization in America, including the 2018 U.S. Farm Bill, which authorized the cultivation of hemp and allowed public universities to do research on hemp.
Northern Michigan expands medicinal plant chemistry degree
The Farm Bill helped pave the way for NMU’s ability to grow and test hemp, Canfield said. For the first two years, students weren’t actually working with the hemp plant, but learned to measure and extract medicinal compounds from plants such as St. John’s Wort and ginseng, then transfer that knowledge to cannabis.
This fall, NMU will debut new medicinal plant chemistry labs, equipped with new instrumentation to give students access to the latest technology. The labs include indoor growing space for hemp, plus areas for the extraction of chemical compounds as well as research and analysis.
“Our students definitely want experience directly working with the cannabis plant,” Canfield said.
While they will have access to hemp, students won’t be able to work with marijuana. Hemp and marijuana are broad classifications of cannabis, which comes from the cannabis sativa plant. Marijuana has higher levels of THC, the chemical compound that has psychotropic or euphoric effects, and is not widely grown or studied at public universities because it remains illegal on the federal level. Public universities risk losing federal financial aid for students, Canfield said.
“It is a significant area of research that needs to be openly and honestly conducted,” he said. “A lot of it does come down to the federal prohibition. The hurdles a researcher and a university have to go through just to work with this stuff, it’s kind of ridiculous.”
Hemp, which contains traces of THC, can be used to make food, rope, clothing, paper, textiles, housing material and more. It’s also the source of cannabidiol, or CBD, which is used in a broad range of nutritional and therapeutic products.
NMU’s program teaches students the chemistry skills necessary to work in a lab and extract and analyze medicinal compounds from a variety of plants: St. John’s Wort, lemon balm, lavender, echinacea, ginseng and other botanical supplements and food science industries.
“Everybody is going to get a solid chemistry education,” Canfield said. “With this degree program, the primary emphasis is on the lab analysis, but also equally focusing on the processing side. That is a lot of chemistry, the extraction and turning that extract back into an edible product or topical product or smokable product.”
NMU’s medicinal plant chemistry program has attracted students from 48 states and put the small community of Marquette on the cutting-edge of cannabis education. NMU could have 400 students this fall based on current applications, said Canfield, who developed the program with a colleague in the chemistry department, Lesley Putman, PhD.
“We’ve brought some diversity up to the U.P.,” Canfield said.
Students can select from the bio-analytical track and study advanced topics in chemistry and biology or an entrepreneurial track that offers courses in accounting, entrepreneurship and marketing.
The school’s investment in new lab space will triple the department’s instrumentation and allow for smaller class sizes in upper-level courses. Canfield said undergraduates in the program have access to $250,000 instruments he didn’t get to use until his doctoral program.
The NMU program was developed by the faculty and proposed to the administration, which offered its full support, Canfield added.
“Everyone is on board,” he said.
The job outlook looks promising for graduates. People in the cannabis industry have been working underground or without formal training, and it’s a field where specialized skills are in demand. People can teach themselves a lot about plant growth and genetics, but most people don’t have access to high-tech equipment, Canfield said.
The need for educated and skilled workers to test cannabis and other products, not just for potency, but for pesticides, infectious pathogens, heavy metals and more, is only going to continue to grow. The average starting salary for a cannabis chemist is $72,000, according to estimates.
“At some point, you’re going to see this not be such a novel thing,” Canfield said. “It’s going to be sort of a standard field of study.”
LSSU launches cannabis chemistry, business programs
About 164 miles down the road from NMU, Lake Superior State University is also launching two cannabis degree programs related to chemistry and business this fall.
The chemistry program includes classes in organic chemistry, instrumental analysis and biochemistry. Students have the option of a bachelor’s degree focused on the chemistry of cannabis or a two-year associate’s degree program in cannabis science.
The four-year chemistry degree prepares graduates for chemistry jobs related to cannabis production, quality control and testing, equipping them to work as laboratory chemists or develop standards for production, regulation and safety.
Due to the lengthy approval process for the cannabis business degree, LSSU missed a hard recruitment push for this school year, Muller said. A survey course of cannabis business will kick off the specialized degree this fall.
Muller predicts larger enrollment for the program in the 2020-21 school year, especially with the added perk that LSSU offers in-state tuition rates for out-of-state students across all degree programs.
Cannabis is an ever-changing industry in both the U.S. and Canada, creating the need for business leaders, cannabis scientists and well-informed policy advocates. Muller said she foresees graduates of the LSSU cannabis programs pursuing a variety of careers including managing a dispensary or cultivation facility, opening a cannabis business, or marketing and lobbying on behalf of the industry.
LSSU’s curriculum includes classes such as cannabis business policy, economics, sociology, and law and policy to educate students on unique issues related to the industry. Graduates should be able to talk about cannabis and its legalization in respectful and educated ways, Muller said.
Lower peninsula cannabis courses
While no other Michigan schools have launched full-scale cannabis degree programs, a handful of the state’s public universities have added cannabis-related coursework.
Rather than focus on chemistry or running a pot business, Allendale-based Grand Valley State University has opted for a different path with a new course on cannabis regulations and tourism this fall.
The course, offered through the hospitality and tourism management (HTM) department, focuses on the benefits and drawbacks of the new cannabis tourism industry in Michigan, other states and Canada. Michigan has an abundance of outdoor recreation opportunities, a strong tourism industry, and was the first state in the Midwest to legalize recreational use.
Affiliate Professor John Lipford developed the course and said “it just made good sense for hospitality and tourism professionals in our state to be educated on this topic.”
The course examines the challenges and opportunities of cannabis-based tourism for food service and lodging, tour operators, meeting and events, and various franchisees. This includes looking at the underlying regulatory history of marijuana, as well as comparing and contrasting it to the prohibition of alcohol during the 1920s and early 1930s.
The course covers a variety of topics relevant to students from other disciplines, including American history, law, human resources, economics, international studies and more. Students will explore marijuana through the lens of community health and addiction, social and restorative justice, and how to be a responsible operator when it comes to regulating both employee and guest use of cannabis.
“By critically looking at best practices for tourism development, based on the experiences of other states, we can best prepare our students for the future market they will encounter in Michigan’s hospitality and tourism sector,” said Lipford, who will teach the course.
Elsewhere in the state, University of Michigan’s College of Pharmacy introduced PharmSci 420, a course focused on medicinal cannabis, last year. Michigan State University is establishing research and outreach programs through the MSU Extension to examine Michigan’s potential as a future industrial hemp producer/processor based on geography, climate and industrial capacity.
Currently, MSU has no plans for a specific degree program, said Melody Kindraka of MSU’s Media and Public Information Department.