Colleges respond to ‘green rush’

Greenpoint Wellness, a medical marijuana dispensary opened by a student who took a cannabis entrepreneurship course at Anne Arundel Community College. (Photo: Laura Toskov)

Community college workforce programs are all about responding to local labor markets and training people for new jobs.

That’s why some community colleges in states that have legalized marijuana are developing education programs; they are responding to a burgeoning industry that is creating jobs, drawing entrepreneurs and generating significant tax revenues.

Other colleges are participating in the “green rush” in other ways, by welcoming students with scholarships supported by tax revenue from marijuana sales and conducting research on hemp as a promising agricultural product.

New jobs created

“Legalization has opened a lot of workforce opportunities,” says Alyce Stiles, dean of workforce development and community education at Greenfield Community College (GCC) in Massachusetts, which is offering noncredit workshops on the industry.

Massachusetts voters approved measures to legalize medical marijuana in 2012 and recreational marijuana in 2016.

About 100 people attended a workshop in September, which covered regulations, licensing opportunities, banking, compliance and security considerations, entrepreneurial skills and careers in the cannabis industry. Due to demand, GCC plans to offer two additional sessions in November.

GCC is partnering with Patriot Care, a company that operates three medical marijuana dispensaries and a cultivation/manufacturing facility in Massachusetts, to provide the instruction.

“The marijuana industry offers a unique opportunity for the commonwealth,” Stiles says, noting that some forecasters are projecting legal sales of a once-banned substance to reach $1 billion by 2020.

“Our mission is to help educate people about the industry, career opportunities, issues and what we can learn from other states,” says Stiles says, who adds there’s a lot of interest in hemp farming in the community, as well as selling medical cannabis products.

A medical marijuana dispensary operated by Patriot Care, whose founder is presenting a workshop at Greenfield Community College in Massachusetts. (Photo: Patriot Care)

Skills training needed

Mount Wachusett Community College (MWCC) in Massachusetts started a non-credit online class for people interested in getting into the cannabis industry in January 2017 at the request of local marijuana growers who had trouble finding skilled employees.

“We always said we are very community based. We look to see what business and industry needs. It’s really about us being responsive to local industry,” says Rachel Fricke Cardelle, vice president of lifelong learning and workforce development.

MWCC doesn’t have labor market statistics yet on the local cannabis industry, but “we know anecdotally there are a lot of job prospects,” says spokesperson Sam Bonacci.

The course has proven popular. There were 17 students the first time it was offered; 40 are enrolled this year.

At first, some people at the college opposed the idea of offering a course on marijuana because they had family members with substance abuse problems, Cardelle says. But others said they knew people who said cannabis relieved their pain during cancer treatments.

“We decided we can’t treat this as a moral issue,” she says. “This is a societal issue. We are responsible for meeting industry and community needs.”

The course focuses on medical marijuana. Topics include how to grow marijuana, how to be a “bud tender,” how to process it, how different strains are useful for different ailments, employment opportunities, how to open a dispensary, laws and regulations, how patients can get ID cards for medical marijuana, and “myths and miracles.”

The course is taught by people in the industry, not college faculty, and instructors use a curriculum developed by a private cannabis training institute based in Colorado.

Work-based learning

Earlier this month, Massachusetts’ Cannabis Control Commission selected a consortium comprising Holyoke Community College (HCC), the city of Holyoke and the Somerville, Mass.-based Cannabis Community Care and Research Network (C3RN) as a “cannabis social equity training vendor.” The group will design training and competency-based internship/apprenticeship pilot programs for four entry- to mid-level jobs to meet expected local workforce demands. The four jobs are: cannabis cultivation assistant, dispensary patient advocate (“bud tender”), extraction technician assistant, and cannabis pantry cook/cannabis culinary assistant.

The commission is funding the effort through its Social Equity Program, which seeks to assist communities and populations disproportionately affected by drug enforcement laws before the decriminalization of medicinal and recreational/adult-use marijuana in Massachusetts. After students receive core competency training, they will be paired with one of more than 50 cannabis companies, academics, ancillary businesses, consultants, experts and other stakeholders who have signed on to be members of the C3RN/HCC training, internship and apprenticeship network.

“The goal of this one-year pilot program will be to train and link students to employment opportunities in Holyoke and greater western Massachusetts,” says Jeff Hayden, HCC vice president of business and community services. “The purpose of this two-pronged training is to help individuals get placed in a job and to find long-term career pathways.”

Hayden adds that there will be no cannabis or cannabis products on the HCC campus or on any of its off-campus sites where training might take place.

“We will be training students in customer service, dosing and extraction methods and techniques, but when it is time for students to work with actual product, that will take place offsite through our partner C3RN,” he says. “As the education partner, we want to ensure that local residents and students have access to opportunities – including those in emerging industries such as cannabis – that lead to jobs.”

Public demand

In 1996, California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana. It legalized recreational marijuana in 2016.

This summer, City of College of San Francisco offered two workshops titled “Curious about Cannabis” in its continuing education program in response to requests from the public. The curriculum covered “the rich history of the plants as it relates to healthcare, science, politics and social justice,” the college states.

“This is a great example that shows how City College of San Francisco is taking bold steps to create dynamic education that will serve the vibrant and inclusive communities in the Bay Area,” says Theresa Rowland, associate vice chancellor of workforce and economic development.

The college is evaluating feedback from the workshops, which could inform the development of similar programming in the future.

Certificate proposed

Anne Arundel Community College in Maryland may well have gone the farthest in cannabis education. It not only offers a credit-bearing class but is considering developing a certification.

The class, called “Entrepreneurial Opportunities in Emerging Markets: Cannabis Legalization,” has been “incredibly popular” since it started in spring 2015, says business management professor Shad Ewart. It’s been endorsed by the Maryland Medical Cannabis Commission, a branch of the state government. Students who complete the course can earn three credits in business management, although it’s not part of a degree program.

The course appeals to two types of students, Ewart says: those who want to work in the industry and budding entrepreneurs. One of his former students, Laura Toskov opened a medical marijuana dispensary, Green Point Wellness, in February. Toskov, who already had earned an associate degree, told the campus newspaper, the course “opened my eyes to how many avenues we could go down and showed me all the things I’d have to look at when opening a dispensary.”

Ewart calls legalization in Maryland the “green rush,” comparing it to the Gold Rush of the 1840s-50s, when many people got rich selling picks and shovels to gold miners.

Anne Arundel Community College professor Shad Ewart would like to expand business management programming around the cannabis industry.

Starting a cultivation site requires an investment of about $25 million in Maryland, he says, while opening a dispensary takes about $1-$1.2 million.

“My students don’t have that kind of money,” Ewart says. As a result, he expects most of his students will pursue jobs in ancillary business, such as providing video surveillance systems and greenhouses to growers and marketing cannabis products.

When Ewart first proposed his class idea, there was some opposition within the college administration, and he had to make a few compromises: For one thing, he agreed to give up his first choice for a class title, “Ganjapreneurial Opportunities.” He also dropped instruction on horticulture in favor of a stronger focus on job creation and economic development.

Ewart’s current goal is to have Anne Arundel become the first public college to offer a certification program for entry-level workers in the cannabis industry. While processing labs want people with chemistry degrees, and clinic directors should have medical or pharmacy degrees, he says, there are no academic pathways for people aiming for jobs as marijuana plant processors, lab technicians, lab assistants and patient care advisers in dispensaries.

Ewart already met with people in the industry and the state commission about what they consider the knowledge and skills needed by entry-level workers. He expects the certificate would take two semesters to earn and require students to take courses in introductory business, chemistry, horticulture and addiction, as well as his course.

Scholarship funds

In Colorado, where both medical and recreational marijuana are legal, at least one community college is benefiting from excise sales tax revenue from marijuana growers. In 2016, Pueblo County voters passed a ballot measure allowing tax revenue to be used as matching funds for a grant from the Colorado Opportunity Scholarship Initiative. Over the past three years, the foundation awarded $1.3 million in scholarships – ranging from $500 to $5,000 – to more than 840 students who graduated from a Pueblo high school, says Christina Trujillo, executive director of the Pueblo Hispanic Education Foundation, The foundation is managing the scholarship program but the aid isn’t limited to Hispanic students.

Students can use the scholarship at Pueblo Community College (PCC), the Pueblo branch of Colorado State University, or in a few cases, at an institution of higher education outside the community.  Most of the scholarship recipients are using them at PCC, but neither the college nor foundation keeps track of where the students enroll.

About the Author

Ellie Ashford / Matthew Dembicki
Ellie Ashford is an associate editor and Matthew Dembicki is editor of CCDaily.