Higher Education: Here’s How You Could Study Cannabis in College


Consider yourself a cannabis connoisseur? Now, you can get a degree to prove it.

As more states legalize cannabis around the country, a growing number of academic institutions are infusing cannabis into their course offerings, allowing students to pursue majors related to the multibillion-dollar marijuana industry.

It all started at Northern Michigan University (NMU.) In 2017, after the administration asked for “innovative ideas” from their faculty, NMU announced a new major called “Medicinal Plant Chemistry.” Designed to “prepare students for success in the emerging industries relating to medicinal plant production, analysis, and distribution,” the program was the first to teach the study of cannabis at the college level.  

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The major started with 20-30 students, according to NMU spokesperson Derek Hall. Within two years, that number shot up to 400. 

“Medical cannabis was legal in Michigan, and no one had offered a major like this before. We were at the right place at the right time,” Hall told GreenState. 

Don’t let the subject matter deceive you: this is a rigorous program. The major falls under the chemistry department, and courses require intensive research and a lot of lab work. Cannabis is just one of many medicinal plants students will learn about. 

Hall said the goal of the department was to train more qualified technical personnel to help cannabis and other herbal medicine businesses thrive.

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“On one side of the industry you have growers, and on the other you have users, and in between you have chemists answering what is in it – especially the potency of the compounds,” Hall said. “We’re training those lab clinicians in the center.”

There are also options built for those less interested in the research side of the industry. NMU has expanded its medicinal plant chemistry major to incorporate an entrepreneurial track that focuses on the business of cannabis, and the college offers certificates in cannabis healthcare, policy, and agriculture.

Despite the negative stigma that still affects the cannabis industry, Hall said the overall attitude of students pursuing the major is extremely optimistic, thanks to the drug becoming increasingly normalized as a medicinal product in Michigan. 

“NBC National News came to town to do a story on the major when it first opened, and they asked our students why they were interested in the program,” Hall said. “A lot of the students told them their mom or dad had suggested they be in the program because of the great job opportunities in the industry. So, that stigma that was there 10 years ago really isn’t something you find with our students.”

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Since NMU first launched the medicinal plant chemistry major, over a dozen colleges around the country have followed their lead, offering fully accredited academic programs in cannabis agriculture, chemistry, business, and medicine. 

Colorado State University (CSU) is one such institution. The college launched their Cannabis Biology and Chemistry major in the fall of 2020 with 15 students in the program. Over one academic year, the number of students in the major grew to 55. 

“Our program is not pro-cannabis or anti-cannabis,” said David Lehmpuhl, Interim Dean of the College of STEM at CSU, “We simply saw a demand for scientists in this emerging industry and felt it was necessary to get a program that could train those scientists to work in that field.” 

Lehmpul said the college expects students in this major to be employed well, since Colorado has a strong hemp agriculture industry.

Cannabis has even made its way into postgraduate studies. This spring, the University of Maryland celebrated the first graduating class of their MS in Medical Cannabis Science and Therapeutics – a program designed to “provide students with the knowledge they need to support patients and the medical cannabis industry, add to existing research, and develop well-informed medical cannabis policy.” It is the first master’s degree to focus entirely on medical marijuana.

Though medical marijuana has been legal in the state of Maryland since 2013, the latest statistics show less than 10% of doctors in the state are prescribing medical marijuana to their patients. This program, directed by Dr. Leah Sera, an Associate Professor at the University of Maryland’s School of Pharmacy, is attempting to raise that percentage by dispelling old stigmas and promoting awareness.

“Patients are coming to their healthcare providers with questions about medical cannabis, but for most clinicians, medical cannabis wasn’t a part of their training,” Sera told GreenState. “At the same time, medical cannabis programs are expanding in the United States and require an educated workforce to optimize patient care. We thought we could fill those gaps with our master’s program.”

According to Dr. Leigh Vinocur, a practicing cannabis clinician and one of the recent graduates of the MA in Medical Cannabis Science and Therapeutics, the program has “augmented” her practice.

“I had been a practicing physician for 20 plus years before I first heard the word ‘endocannabinoid,’” Vinocur said. “I spent the next years learning as much as I could on my own, and eventually started my own cannabis clinic. But I applied for this program even though my practice was already doing well because I really wanted the most evidence-based, up-to-date guidelines on how to recommend cannabis to patients. It’s actually hard for healthcare providers to get that – that’s a big part of the problem. Healthcare providers don’t understand it.”

While the program is mostly geared toward those in the medical field, elective courses in state cannabis policies and medical cannabis history are also offered.

“Working in the ER for years in Baltimore and in inner cities, I had seen the devastation of drug abuse, and we were taught the dangers of drugs in medical school,” Vinocur said. “One of the main reasons I wanted a more formal education in cannabis was because of feeling this guilt of unwittingly contributing to the opioid crisis all these years, and seeing patients suffer because of the medical benefits of cannabis becoming politicized. So understanding the history of the war on drugs, and how states are handling it, that really rounded out my practice.”

According to a survey of the University of Maryland conducted of the program’s 132 recent graduates, 70% said they were going to use the degree to start a new career path in cannabis. Sera said she believes this program may set a new standard for what it is to be a professional in the field.

“Our students are committed to professionalizing the medical cannabis field, and they are passionate about advocating for patients,” Sera said. “It’s hard to say at this time what academic credentials may or may not be required for those working in different areas of the medical cannabis industry in the future. However, I do think that successful completion of a formal academic program as rigorous as ours shows grit, determination, and a real passion for this field, and I expect that will increasingly be seen as a valuable part of one’s resume.”

Elissa Esher is Assistant Editor at GreenState. Her work has also appeared in The Boston Guardian, Brooklyn Paper, Religion Unplugged, and Iridescent Women. Send inquiries and tips to elli.esher@hearst.com.