Community College and Industry Collaboration: Creating a Qualified Cannabis Workforce
Humanity has had a long relationship with cannabis, with evidence dating back 12,000 years suggesting that it may be one of the oldest plants cultivated by humans (Russo, 2007; Warf, 2014). There is also a 5,000-year history of cannabis being used as a therapeutic agent (Burnett & Reiman, 2014). Siberian burial mounds contained cannabis seeds as far back as 3,000 BCE, while cannabis pollen and cannabinoids were entombed with Ramses II and cannabis seeds in Viking ships date back to the mid-9th century (Warf, 2014). The first clinical cannabis conference in the United States, in 1860, was organized by the Ohio State Medical Society, and over 100 scientific articles focused on the therapeutic value of cannabis were published in Europe and the U.S. during the second half of the 19th century (Byrne, 2014; Mathre, 1977; Zuardi, 2006).
The recent legalization in various countries and ensuing popularity of cannabis is changing the industry’s consumer base. Today, the scientific relevance for the plant’s therapeutic properties is being studied again with a focus on “D9-THC in conditions such as epilepsy, insomnia, vomits, spasms, pain, glaucoma, asthma, inappetence, Tourette syndrome, and others” (Zuardi, 2006, p. 156). The cannabis consumer of the past half century has been a young risk-taker with a high school or college education, partaking several times a week (Deloitte, 2018). With the growing legalization of cannabis, however, an older, more conservative consumer with a university or graduate school education who consumes less than once a month is expected to emerge (Deloitte, 2018).
Community Colleges Step Up
Cannabis use is expanding worldwide, with a projected global legal marijuana market size of $70.6 billion by 2028 (Grand View Research, 2021). While many U.S. institutions are waiting for the federal government to legalize cannabis before moving in this direction, a growing number of community colleges are offering related courses and/or programs (Esch, 2019). According to Bein (2018), colleges and cannabis companies are working together to create training programs to fill the need for trained workers. Weissman (2021) notes that colleges “are increasingly launching courses and programs to train students for the cannabis industry and to demystify the science around the drug as more states legalize marijuana” (para. 1). For instance, Miami Dade College developed courses focused on the chemistry, historic use, and evolving regulation of marijuana in 2019 after Florida legalized it for medical use in 2016 (Shammas, 2019). Similarly, Scottsdale Community College (n.d.) developed a Cannabis Industry Education program in 2020 after both medical- and adult-use became legal in Arizona. According to the college’s website,
The Business School at Scottsdale Community College (SCC), in strategic partnership with MITA (Marijuana Industry Trade Association), is now offering educational training for Cannabis industry entrepreneurs and workforce employees. The Cannabis Industry Education program features one non-credit, 8-week online course, and is customized to students nationwide. (para. 3)
Also in the Maricopa County Community College District, GateWay Community College (n.d.) announced the launch of its Center for Cannabis Business Training focused on high-quality “cannabis training and instruction for business owners and professionals of cannabis and CBD dispensaries” (para. 1). At Moraine Valley Community College, Steve Pappageorge, Corporate, Community and Continuing Education Executive Director, worked with Cresco Labs to develop the curriculum for its Cannabis Retail Specialist Certificate program in fall 2020 (Town, 2021).
Long Beach City College’s (n.d.) Introduction to the Cannabis Industry is an eight-week course that “covers all sectors of the industry from cultivation to retail” and introduces “a new group of students to the cannabis industry while helping seasoned professionals enhance their understanding of the industry, including its heavy regulation” (para. 1). The college developed this course in partnership with the Long Beach Collective Association (n.d.), a local organization “committed to safe and legal cannabis access through advocacy, education, philanthropy and policy development with the city of Long Beach and State of California” (para. 1).
Experts Identify Industry Needs
To better understand the workforce needs of this emerging industry, eight industry experts from the state of California were interviewed in 2019 as part of a qualitative phenomenological study (Black, 2019). The interviewees hold a variety of licenses, state and local, in the areas of cannabis cultivation, manufacturing, distribution, and retail. Analysis of interview responses led to identification of the following terms describing skills and/or traits needed by individuals pursuing careers in the cannabis industry: relationship building, professionalism, compliance, cultivation, core values, loyalty, character, people skills, common sense, flexibility, and knowledge. In addition, the themes business acumen, advocacy, and love and passion were categorized as both themes and skills/traits which are foundational for cannabis courses and programs (Black, 2019).
Every interviewee noted that the business acumen needed for the cannabis industry is likely no different from that in any other business. Behind dispensary owners and employees who are focused on the plant, for instance, are CPAs, tax attorneys, financial analysts, and marketing and social media experts. In the past, one person wore all the hats; today expertise is needed in a variety of areas. In addition, today’s customer is diverse, with a wide range of interests and needs. Interviewees repeatedly affirmed the importance of knowing the market.
The interviewees also indicated that large companies with no history of working with cannabis or that minimally consult with cannabis experts are very likely to redesign the landscape for how cannabis is grown, processed, and sold. The entry of large-scale operations into the cannabis industry is a double-edged sword. A number of interviewees see big business as being able to unravel misinformation that has plagued the industry for decades. On the downside, one interviewee notes, “the people who have been on the front lines . . . [have] been through the wringer and quite frankly might not survive the industry.” All eight of the experts interviewed advise small cannabis operators not to enter the business until all the regulatory challenges are addressed; instead, operators are encouraged to focus on the ancillary cannabis businesses such as packaging or marketing unless an individual is strongly driven by a love of cannabis and all it can do for humankind. According to Schroyer and McVey (2019), “Legacy operators who fueled California's gray medical marijuana market for two decades have been shut out of the legal industry either by local license caps or by city and county ordinances that ban their business model” (para. 5). This shut out has caused the market to contract for older legal and illegal operations while opening the market to newcomers. Most of the interviewees found that today it is not enough to just run a business; supporters need to advocate for the industry as a whole. They emphasized that advocacy is necessary to restructure the taxation of the industry to benefit related businesses and specifically the legacy of mom-and-pop operators, artisans, and crafters who have decades of proprietary knowledge.
Love and Passion
The phenomenological essence that emerged from the interviews was love and passion—a love and passion for the cannabis plant and, more specifically, for growing cannabis, the medicinal properties of cannabis, and what cannabis can do for others. One interviewee who owns a dispensary explained, “We basically show love; it’s that simple. The only reason why I will survive is that love will not be lost here.” Another interviewee stated, “Cannabis has been a craft to grow. It’s an art; the growers, they’re passionate about it. They love the plant [and] they love what they do.” A third interviewee’s advice for people trying to get into the industry is not to do so “unless you love it.” Furthermore, a growing body of research (Downs, 2016; Grotenhermen & Muller-Vahl, 2012; Kubala, 2018; Zuardi, 2006) supports what Schwarz (2009) stated in the PBS documentary, The Botany of Desire: “This plant has opened up this very fruitful path of inquiry into understanding how memory works, how consciousness works, how emotions work” (0:57:33).
Community colleges have the opportunity to support cannabis career pathways and meet industry needs by creating courses and programs that will add to a growing cannabis workforce. The following recommendations, based on interview responses, may assist in building these programs.
- Consult and engage cannabis industry experts. Include industry experts who have had hands-on experience as part of the overall program design and implementation team of educators, administrators, and legal experts. Consulting with industry experts will affirm that the curriculum is relevant, current, and beneficial to the advancement of the cannabis industry as well as to higher education.
- Nurture relationships. According to Sacirbey (2019), trusted relationships are needed: “In a time when giant multistate marijuana companies dominate in the U.S. cannabis landscape, legitimate concerns exist that they will drive craft and small cultivators out of the legal cannabis industry” (para. 1). Colleges that build relationships and collaborate with small-scale cultivators will benefit from their long-term expertise. This breed of cultivator tends to hold close a rich body of cannabis knowledge which is often overlooked by those within the massive grows operations (Black, 2019).
- Offer training and mentoring. Seek out current college faculty interested in teaching a cannabis curriculum and offer training in the form of workshops and/or sabbaticals. Seek out cannabis industry experts who are interested in teaching and provide them pedagogical support. Ideally, cannabis experts would mentor community college professors regarding the industry, and community college professors would mentor cannabis experts regarding academia and pedagogy.
- Address negative bias. Address bias early on and in multiple ways. Community colleges need advocates who view the cannabis industry as a legitimate profession run by professionals and understand that a cannabis program would be beneficial for the college and the community.
- Incorporate love and passion into programming. The artisans and crafters who have been in the industry for decades are there, in part, because of their love and passion for the cannabis plant and for all the good cannabis can offer. Cannabis training programs that interweave love and passion into their courses have the potential to graduate students with a positive and holistic view of the plant as well as the profession.
- Emphasize professionalism. One goal for training the future cannabis workforce is to graduate individuals who are immediately able to make a strong contribution in a professional setting. This requires training in business standards as well as advocacy specific to the cannabis industry.
- Build knowledge. Build the cannabis program upon a foundation of legal, medicinal, and political knowledge. For example, legal knowledge should focus on operating a cannabis business, medicinal knowledge ranges from research to serving customers, and political knowledge includes an understanding of laws and regulations.
- Offer broad-based courses. Focus program coursework on the themes of compliance, advocacy, and cultivation. Compliance includes a wide range of legal and ethical procedures related to business, business law, and public policy; culinary, food science, food handling, and ServSafe; machinery operation and repair; cannabis history; extraction and math skills related to extraction; and computer tracking skills. Advocacy could be included in business and business law; leadership; cannabis history, sociology, political science, and communications; and the medicinal aspects of the endocannabinoid system, CBD, THC, and psychopharmacology. Cultivation requires knowledge and skill development in heating, ventilation, air conditioning, lighting and electrical, horticulture, permaculture, soil regeneration, and non-cannabis plant growing skills.
Finkel (2019) stated in Community College Journal that, community college cannabis cultivation degree and certificate offerings “are an important part of both their . . . academic catalogs and local employers’ recruiting pipelines” (p. 14). The development of comprehensive cannabis programming with industry consultation and support is a win-win for academia, the cannabis industry, local employers, and students. We are on the cusp of a new frontier with a growing understanding of the beneficial impact of cannabis on humans after millennia of historical association. Community colleges that develop collaborative and holistic cannabis courses and programs including the foundations of business acumen, advocacy, and love and passion will find themselves at the forefront of serving a growing industry and the community at large.
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Black, B. (2019). Creating a qualified cannabis workforce: How higher education can support cannabis career pathways. The GrowthOp. https://krex.k-state.edu/dspace/bitstream/handle/2097/40335/BeckyBlack2020.pdf?sequence=3&isAllowed=y
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Becky Black, EdD, MFT, RDN, is Associate Professor, Nutrition and Dietetics, at Long Beach City College in Long Beach, California.
Opinions expressed in Innovation Showcase are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.