Grace DeNoya is used to getting snickers when people learn she’s majoring in marijuana.
“My friends make good-natured jokes about getting a degree in weed,” said DeNoya, one of the first students in a new four-year degree program in medicinal plant chemistry at Northern Michigan University. “I say, ‘No, it’s a serious degree, a chemistry degree first and foremost. It’s hard work. Organic chemistry is a bear.’ ”
As a green gold rush in legal marijuana and its non-drug cousin hemp spreads across North America, a growing number of colleges are adding cannabis to the curriculum to prepare graduates for careers cultivating, researching, analyzing and marketing the herb.
Research shows there are high times ahead for all kinds of careers in cannabis, ranging from greenhouse and dispensary operators to edible product developers, marketing specialists, quality assurance lab directors and pharmaceutical researchers. Arcview Market Research, which focuses on cannabis industry trends, projects the industry will support 467,000 jobs by 2022.
And even in states where recreational marijuana remains illegal — including New York, New Jersey and Connecticut — some colleges have launched cannabis studies programs in anticipation of legalization or to prepare students for jobs in other states.
“We’re providing a fast track to get into the industry,” said Brandon Canfield, a chemistry professor at Northern Michigan University in Marquette. Two years ago, he proposed a new major in medicinal plant chemistry after attending a conference where cannabis industry representatives spoke of an urgent need for analytical chemists for product quality assessment and assurance.
The four-year degree, which is the closest thing to a marijuana major at an accredited U.S. university, has drawn nearly 300 students from 48 states, Canfield said. Students won’t be growing marijuana, which was recently legalized by Michigan voters for recreational use. But Canfield said students will learn to measure and extract medicinal compounds from plants such as St. John’s Wort and ginseng and transfer that knowledge to marijuana.
A similar program is being launched at Minot State University in North Dakota this spring. The college said students will learn lab skills applicable to medical marijuana, hops, botanical supplements and food science industries.
“All of our graduates are going to be qualified to be analysts in a lab setting,” said Canfield, noting that experience could lead to a position paying $70,000 right out of school. Those wishing to start their own businesses can choose an entrepreneurial track that adds courses in accounting, legal issues and marketing.