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Higher Education Cautiously Begins to Train Cannabis Industry Leaders

College business programs are well positioned to prepare students for careers in cannabis but are hampered because marijuana remains federally illegal.

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It seems without a doubt, the cannabis industry will experience tremendous growth in the coming years, with one analyst estimating that legal marijuana sales in the US could reach $47 billion within the next decade.

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To support this growth, companies participating in the cannabis industry, as well as ancillary industries, will need to find qualified workers. As new firms decide to enter this rapidly growing market, it is reasonable to assume it will become more competitive, which means cannabis industry workers will need the skills necessary to survive in an increasingly demanding industry environment. Currently, more than 60 percent of Americans believe marijuana use should be legal. Therefore, higher standards of professionalism are of paramount importance if legalized cannabis is to continue to shake off its century-long stigma, appeal to more mainstream consumers and maintain this growth momentum, due to growing public support for legal marijuana over the past decade.

Related: 5 Essential Characteristics of a Cannabis Entrepreneur

According to Vangst, a cannabis industry recruitment and job placement firm, industry participants have the greatest demand for the following positions: Director of Extraction, Director of Cultivation, Compliance Manager, Dispensary Manager, Outside Sales Representatives, Budtenders and Trimmers. Some of these positions require specialized training and proficiency in science and business. However, the manufacture and distribution of cannabis is still a federal criminal offense, even in those states where it is legal under state law.  Therefore, higher education institutions, especially those receiving federal funding, have been proceeding cautiously. For example, both University of Washington and Washington State University have issued guidance limiting cannabis research.

In this uncertain legal environment, what can colleges and universities do to help students who want to explore careers in the cannabis industry? Seattle Central College and two other schools offer training programs for medical marijuana that are approved by Washington’s Department of Health. Last April, Central Washington University’s College of Business hosted a Cannabis Caucus, which was the first in Washington devoted the cannabis industry, and it will host another Cannabis Caucus next year in Seattle.

In summer 2017, The Evergreen State College began offering a class called The Business of Cannabis: Opportunities and Risks in an Emerging Market, which gives students an overview of the cannabis industry. Although the class offers credits in Business Regulation, Principles of Entrepreneurship and Social History of Cannabis, its description emphasizes that “it is NOT a how-to guide for establishing a cannabis-based business, but the study of an emerging marketplace.”

Related: Latest Gallup Poll Finds a Big Majority of Americans Support Legal Marijuana

Students in The Business of Cannabis have taken field trips to indoor grow operations and local testing laboratories that serve other businesses in the cannabis supply chain, as well as attended Seattle Hempfest, “a constitutionally protected free-speech event.” Invited guest speakers have included a medical doctor, a medical marijuana advocate, a recreational marijuana retail store manager, principals of a social media and promotional events firm, a CPA, representatives from the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board, a chief deputy city attorney for the City of Portland, a vice president of business services at a Seattle-based credit union, and the owner of an indoor grow operation, and the general manager of a vape pen manufacturer. Students respond well to professionals, both in and out of the classroom, because they get to hear about real-world cannabis industry issues firsthand, and it makes a more lasting impression.

It is also important for students to examine cannabis’ unique history and culture from a variety of perspectives. In The Business of Cannabis, multiple books are assigned that cover a broad range of topics, such as the evolution of cannabis culture, consumption, politics and regulation; other drugs and intoxicants; gender and racial equity; and contemporary social, health and policy issues. Students examine Internal Revenue Code Section 280E, which prohibits cannabis businesses from deducting many business expenses in determining taxable income. This includes an exploration of Section 280E’s potential impact on how a cannabis business is organized and operates. Budgeting and other issues pertaining to cash businesses, such as theft and fraud prevention, are also covered. The regulatory environment for cannabis-related businesses is complex and changing, which means students frequently conclude that, if they know how to operate a cannabis business, they probably can successfully operate many other types of businesses.

Related: Cannabis Culture Is Fast Becoming Corporate Culture

This leads us back to our original question about the role of higher education in training the next generation of cannabis industry leaders. Given the uncertain legal environment, at this time it may not be prudent for colleges and universities that receive federal funds to provide explicit how-to guidance for establishing and operating a cannabis-based business. However, even if students do not intend to participate in the rapidly growing cannabis marketplace, studying it will help them gain a better understanding of the regulatory, financial, and marketing issues facing many other types of businesses. In addition, with the industry’s tremendous projected growth in the coming years, students will be well-served to learn more about cannabis’ unique history, culture, properties as a whole plant and regulatory structure. For these reasons alone, more colleges and universities should seriously consider offering cannabis courses.