Nation’s first marijuana college major prepares grads for a growing field

By: | Issue: December, 2017
November 28, 2017

Sure, it may elicit snickers when first mentioned, but the new “marijuana major” at Northern Michigan University is serious stuff. Called the Medicinal Plant Chemistry program, it’s the first U.S. undergraduate major in the study of cannabinoids.

Although a significant portion of the curriculum will be devoted to cannabis studies, the program will eventually encompass other substances as well, says associate professor Brandon Canfield. “There are any number of other herbs in the ethnobotanical literature that may have some therapeutic application that will be included.”

Medicinal marijuana is legal in Michigan as well as 28 other states and the District of Columbia.

Sidebar: How Medicinal Plant Chemistry students will be taught

Initially, students will study how the compounds behave chemically in a lab, attempting to set baseline chemical component levels for the numerous strains of marijuana available through dispensaries and elsewhere.

No, students aren’t going to be growing cannabis—at least not at first. Enough signatures have been gathered to put legalization on the 2018 ballot, an effort that failed in 2016. The lab can purchase small amounts of cannabis for research purposes.

“They are incredibly small—often less than 1 milligram,” Canfield says. “That’s not enough for anyone to consume or abuse, but more than enough for our instrumental needs.”

Twelve students are enrolled in the inaugural course, which began in September, but Canfield predicts many more will sign up as students become aware of the career possibilities in a burgeoning industry.

Students who graduate from the program’s bio-analytical track can work in botanical medicine, and those on the entrepreneurial path might start their own medical marijuana facility.

“It is, essentially, a chemistry degree but with different emphases on business and entrepreneurial disciplines,” Canfield says.

The program took a little over a year to develop, and Northern Michigan’s administrators fully support it.

“Even I was a bit skeptical at first,” Canfield says. “But once you get past the knee-jerk reactions—no one has done this before, is this legitimate?—and look at the program we’ve crafted, plus the market demand for what our graduates will be able to do, no one objected.”