Cultivating cannabis: Higher ed’s influence on a billion-dollar industry

As state laws lean favorably towards cannabis, universities are waking up to the green revolution. Lake Superior State University blazed the trail with cannabis certificates in 2019.
DorothyBelle Poli
DorothyBelle Poli
DorothyBelle “DB” Poli is a biology professor at Roanoke College. She began to research the benefits of a cannabis studies program in 2022. Poli is also a research associate for the Virginia Museum of Natural History on some botanical questions from the Carboniferous era.

The cannabis market, a behemoth estimated at $40-57 billion nationally, is not just booming; it’s reshaping industries, creating over 300 jobs daily. This isn’t a passing trend; it’s the ‘wild west’ of opportunities. Formal education could be the game-changer, offering employers a skilled workforce and establishing much-needed standards.

As state laws lean favorably towards cannabis, universities are waking up to the green revolution. Lake Superior State University blazed the trail with cannabis certificates in 2019. Fast forward, and now they are churning out chemistry and business majors. Yet, the US only has a handful of schools offering full-fledged degrees; most stick to certificates or minors.

Enter Roanoke College, a small liberal arts college in Virginia, making headlines by launching a cannabis studies program with two majors and a minor—a first in the Commonwealth and a rarity on the East Coast. But do not mistake it for an education in rolling joints and getting high.

Roanoke’s Cannabis Studies Program is a product of extensive research, interviews with industry leaders, and observations nationwide. In an industry where many businesses operate cash-only due to federal restrictions, scientists need a unique blend of botany, chemistry, and a keen understanding of the plant’s policy history.

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Gone are the days of Anslinger and the “just say no” campaigns. Roanoke’s Cannabis Studies Program aims to debunk misinformation in US literature by aligning with global standards, providing essential rigor and legitimacy for a competitive edge in the evolving cannabis landscape.

Roanoke College stands out in cannabis education, breaking away from the big research universities. Students receive a comprehensive political, historical and scientific core in both majors, coupled with experiential learning opportunities. They are encouraged to undertake research-based projects, fostering a well-rounded perspective crucial for navigating the industry.

However, a word of caution to institutions eyeing cannabis education – legal scrutiny looms large. Federally, cannabis remains a Schedule 1 drug and illegal, adding complexity to educational initiatives. While the education itself is legal, institutions must safeguard students from the legal implications of a Schedule 1 drug. Many programs use hemp instead of medical marijuana to sidestep federal troubles – a move that may require a lawyer versed in this niche.

Furthermore, higher education’s role extends beyond merely educating individuals; it’s about shaping the future workforce in a billion-dollar industry. By offering specialized programs like cannabis studies, colleges and universities are not just responding to market demands but actively influencing the industry’s trajectory. Through rigorous curricula and hands-on experiences, these programs cultivate a cohort of professionals poised to drive innovation, advocate for regulatory reform, and lead ethical business practices within the cannabis sector.

In conclusion, higher education’s role in the cannabis industry goes beyond adapting to change; it is a catalyst for transformation. Higher education stands as a guiding force, shaping a future where knowledge, integrity and opportunity converge. Institutions are not only preparing students for career success but also contributing to the sustainable growth and maturation of a rapidly expanding industry poised to shape economies and societies for years to come.


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