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A student works in the hemp greenhouse on campus at Colorado State University Pueblo.

Blake Jackson Photography/CSU Pueblo

Colorado State University Pueblo has a greenhouse full of hemp plants. The plants look a lot like marijuana, but David Lehmpuhl, a chemistry professor and interim dean of the university’s college of STEM, tells students during tours of the greenhouse that smoking the stuff yields a headache, not a high.

The plants -- intentionally low in THC, the compound responsible for the drug-like effect of marijuana -- are part of a new bachelor’s degree program in cannabis biology and chemistry. The university launched the program in fall 2020 and has seen a surge of interest since. The first cohort was about 15 students, and 56 students are enrolled in the major this coming fall.

That enrollment level is “double what we had planned on having,” Lehmpuhl said. “There seems to be pretty strong demand for it, which is exciting.”

College programs focused on cannabis are growing as states legalize the plant for medical and recreational use and as scholars seek to demystify the science behind marijuana’s many uses and its policy implications, cannabis researchers say. Community colleges in particular are capitalizing on the growing interest ahead of start of the fall semester as they try to meet new local labor market needs in the burgeoning cannabis industry.

Community College of Denver is among those institutions. The college is launching an associate of applied science program in cannabis business this upcoming academic year and hopes to offer a bachelor of applied science program in fall 2022. The cannabis fundamentals course was initially capped at 20 students, but 10 more spots were added to meet student demand, and another section of the course may be added, depending on the size of the wait list after the fall semester begins Aug. 23.

Cannabis is one of the fastest-growing industries in the United States, and wages in the field range from $15 an hour to $150,000 a year depending on the position, according to a January report from Vangst, a cannabis industry professional recruiting firm. But there is “an education gap and workforce gap there,” said John Frost, program chair and faculty member for the new cannabis business program at Community College of Denver. “The industry is evolving from what was an illicit market to pockets of legalized medical use and into legal recreational use. It is expanding rapidly.”

Colorado was among the first states to legalize recreational marijuana, in 2012, but multiple states have legalized the drug within the last couple of years, and colleges and universities in those states have been especially quick to offer cannabis-focused degree and certificate programs and courses.

For example, horticulture majors at Naugatuck Valley Community College in Connecticut can now take a new cannabis production course this fall after the state legalized recreational marijuana in July.

Christopher J. Tuccio, a professor and program coordinator of horticulture at the college, said in a news release that future horticulturists will benefit from learning the “techniques and science of cannabis cultivation” as “legislation throughout the country is changing.”

Syracuse University’s University College, which caters to part-time students, will partner with the cannabis education company Green Flower to offer four noncredit certificates in cannabis law and policy, business, health and medicine, and agriculture and horticulture. New York legalized marijuana possession at the end of Marchl.

The list goes on and on, but not everyone is celebrating the spread of academic cannabis programs. Resistance to such programs by some faculty members, administrators, alumni, donors and state lawmakers can make them difficult to establish.

Lehmpuhl said it took about two years to get buy-in from instructors, campus and university system leaders, and state officials. There was opposition and hesitancy from faculty members and administrators “all the way” through the process of creating the CSU Pueblo program. Emails from concerned colleagues and community members expressed worry that a program with the word "cannabis" in the name would stigmatize the college or put federal funding for financial aid in jeopardy. Lehmpuhl held "lots" of one-on-one meetings to explain the purpose of the program.

“It was a lot of work on my part to encourage and convince people that this is a completely legal degree,” Lehmpuhl said. He pointed out that the university secured a Colorado Department of Agriculture license to grow hemp and made sure the program wouldn’t risk any loss of federal funding.

Fida Obeidi, dean of the center for health and natural sciences at Community College of Denver, said the cannabis business program didn't face opposition in part because proponents did a lot of work up front to prove there was local workforce demand, including a research study on the needs of the industry and employer surveys.

Even as community colleges are increasingly branching out to offer cannabis-related programs -- versus just individual courses or seminars -- Frost said there's still not a “huge list” of institutions, in part because these fields are relatively new and “new things are scary.”

“There are challenges to overcome in terms of regulation and the politics surrounding this industry, and people’s different takes on it play a big part in whether people in positions of authority are comfortable with pursuing such a program or not,” he said. Creating a cannabis-focused program requires “the perfect combination of receptive administration and a state comfortable with it, which of course differs dramatically throughout the United States. It’s a big lift to get a program like this off the ground.”

Lehmpuhl emphasizes in his messaging about the program that it is “a rigorous science degree” that requires similar coursework to a double major in biology and chemistry and is designed to provide students with various career options, whether that’s a job in the cannabis industry or enrollment in medical school.

“One of the things we’ve tried to make clear is we’re not pro-pot or pro-cannabis by any stretch,” Lehmpuhl said. “What we’re looking at is the science.”

Gonzalo Carrasco, associate professor of biomedical sciences at Cooper Medical School of Rowan University, said a lack of cannabis research is a public safety issue. His work focuses on the possible negative effects of the chronic use of cannabinoids among young people.

He now conducts research for Rowan’s new Institute for Cannabis Research, Policy & Workforce Development, which the university opened in February 2021 after New Jersey legalized cannabis. The institute has three centers, each focused on an aspect of cannabis: the science behind the long-term effects of cannabis, the social implications of state cannabis policy, and its role in workforce development.

Carrasco, who has studied cannabinoids for 15 years, believes it’s crucial for scientists to study the side effects of cannabinoids, like any other medicine, so pharmacists can properly advise people on them and doctors know what tests to run to ensure these drugs are the best treatment plan for an individual patient.

“There is a lack of knowledge of the effects of these drugs,” he said.

The institute’s interdisciplinary approach means scientific research on cannabis can be “rapidly translated” into recommendations for state policy and guidance for health practitioners and the public, he added.

Lehmpuhl noted that cannabis industry leaders want workers with scientific knowledge and training.

People in the cannabis industry in Colorado “had experience growing cannabis and working with cannabis, extracting things … but they didn’t really have a science background,” he said. “There were laboratories that were being opened that needed workers that could determine percentages of THC, if they were working with marijuana or CBD, if they were working with hemp, or pesticides or heavy metals. We had this demand as we were talking with people in the emerging industry.”

(Note: Gonzalo Carrasco, an associate professor of biomedical sciences at Cooper Medical School of Rowan University who is quoted in this article, is the parent of an Inside Higher Ed reporter who was not involved in reporting or writing this article.)

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