Cannabis boom spurs questions of education

Eileen Hopkins
Mesa Legend

The cannabis industry is developing a large economic presence in the American economy in the 23 states in which it’s become legal. The drug itself has been illegal at the federal level for decades, and has only recently been making legal inroads for medical use. Now some states have even begun sanctioning recreational use for anyone over the age of 21.  With the industry becoming more legal and more profitable every year, the question of cannabis-related education is coming to the fore. However, cannabis isn’t the only trending industry that is creating this kind of need for educated professionals: craft beer brewing, growing grapes for wine (viticulture), and producing wine (oenology) are other controversial areas of study at educational institutions.

With the growth of the American cannabis industry, the issue of training in the field remains.
With the growth of the American cannabis industry, the issue of training in the field remains.

“Specialties can definitely develop for studies in oenology, viticulture, brewing beer, and cannabis,” Caryn Heaps, a professor of agricultural landscape design at MCC, said. Peter Conden, professor and program director for the Urban Horticulture program at MCC, discussed the wine industry. “(Viticulture and oenology) are bona fide majors at several state universities like North Carolina State University,” Conden said. For fields like the wine industry to be professionally studied at educational institutions, it takes more than a few students to say they want to study it.
It takes serious funding, too, as well as the community’s overall support.“It all comes down to politics, and politics is the biggest barrier when it comes to adding programs at universities and colleges,” said Robert Wuertz, a University of Arizona alumnus who studied agriculture economics and management.

Wuertz is also on the U of A college of Agriculture and Life Sciences alumni board. According to Wuertz, the board is struggling to add a school of veterinary medicine to their agriculture branch at the U of A. The situation is complicated because funding for the program is problematic, even though U of A is considered a land grant university, and getting approved by the other Arizona schools and universities is a competitive long process Community colleges and universities have different barriers when it comes to adding programs of a particular study. “Community colleges take around 8 months to approve a program, while universities take at least 7 years. For cannabis to be brought to a school it would have to be accepted by their community to be there,” said Raymond Gless Jr., another professor of agriculture at MCC.

While there are still no college level institutions offering studies that are specific to cannabis, instructors and those working in the industry say that there are still other legitimate degree options that students can pursue that will give them the tools and the opportunity to get work in the cannabis industry.  “It’s important to understand plants in general in this industry: fruits, plants, flowers, and vegetables,” said Alex Tice, the inventory manager of SWC, a state-licensed Tempe dispensary. Tice explained that in order to be able to treat the patients’ medical issues, it’s critical to understand the product inside and out, so you can use your understanding of the products effects to help the patients’ specific needs. “What it all comes down to is all of these are living things, and when you understand the plant you’ll understand its proper uses,” Tice said.“Students can grow whatever they want with what I teach them, but I only teach them about plant care, proper greenhouse management, and maintaining greenhouse plant propagation so they can learn how to propagate anything,” Conden said.

“We can’t teach about medical marijuana because it’s still federally illegal and colleges would have to go out on a serious limb it to support that.” Conden gave some advice for those who want to get involved in the cannabis industry. “Learn the laws for one thing and learn what your exposure is to prosecution, if anything, and then learn how to properly run a greenhouse, learn how to properly grow plants, and learn how to run a business before even considering getting started,” he said. “It’s really critical to understand your rights and what you can and can’t do in an industry that has lots of legal and illegal boundaries in it,” Tice added. Gless also chimed in on the topic.
“Entrepreneur skills are valuable to the cannabis industry because they have to be skilled across the board; they don’t only have to be specialized in a skill of growing crops; but also understand how business works, how management works, and how hiring process should go,” he said.

As far as bringing cannabis to schools, Heaps expected future demand in the area. “It has to start out in the business world,” Heaps said. “Then they’ll start to sponsor people, or tell people to go get educated in order to work.”However for an industry that is still federally illegal, it needs to prove that it has educational value to schools.  “Right now, the cannabis research is mostly done for recreational purposes with some medical purposes,” Gless said. “But once you get the medical researchers on board with pushing for the medical research that will show the actual numbers behind it then I think that will be the real push.” “I think we should include these popular crops in our programs to see if people take a interest and want to specialize in it,” Heaps said. “You wouldn’t teach agriculture and not teach about corn so, I think it’s important to include it.” Anyone who has been working in cannabis and has a history of experience in it clearly hasn’t been doing it legally.

Thus, finding people that are valuable assets in the industry and haven’t been in trouble, is going to present a struggle for future companies in the cannabis industry who want experienced credible employees. “The cannabis industry is starting a new need in businesses for employees because, they need the right people with the professional skills and credentials to succeed,” Wuertz said. Some professors see cannabis and beer brewing coming to smaller institutions for certifications, and some can also see it being brought to universities.  “I think Arizona State would be more likely to take in cannabis studies because, they’re trying to be different from U of A’s, and they have a lot of control in the states’ legislators and senators,” Wuertz said.“If schools are going to shut down cannabis-related studies it’s going to be because of funding, and it goes against traditions,” Wuertz said.  According to Wuertz, until society gets educated through studies on cannabis, it will still be considered a taboo field of study.  “Economic growth stems off of new research and new technology,” he said.

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