Lake Superior State University junior Justin Blaylock works with chemical analysis equipment as part of the cannabis analytical chemistry degree offered by the university. Photo courtesy of Lake Superior State University
DENVER, Sept. 17 (UPI) -- U.S. universities are offering courses and degree programs built around cannabis science, even though marijuana is still illegal at the federal level.
The schools are responding to the need for trained workers and chemical analysts in the booming marijuana industry, with medical marijuana legal in 33 states and recreational pot approved in 11 states.
Researchers in these new university projects say they are hoping to fill a gap in understanding how the plant works in the human body. Some schools offer courses related to marijuana for doctors and pharmacy students, as well as the training needed to analyze and process the plant for human consumption.
The University of California-Davis's new Cannabis and Hemp Research Center, which opened last month, brings the university's cannabis researchers under one umbrella, including experts in law, agriculture, medicine, psychiatry, veterinary medicine and business, said Cindy Kiel, the center's executive associate vice chancellor for research.
"We want to identify where scientific gaps are and influence policy-making in state governments, particularly for medical use of cannabis," Kiel said.
The explosion of medical and recreational cannabis has far outpaced research in states like California, where medical and recreational pot can be purchased in many forms, including joints, vapes, tinctures, gummies, oils, salves, edibles, nasal mists and dissolving film wafers, or added to foods like chocolate and beer.
Requirements for studying marijuana might be easing across the country. At the University of Mississippi, research with the actual plant until recently required Drug Enforcement Administration-specified cannabis, cultivated in special high-security areas under lock.
In August, however, the DEA announced it would begin to consider other growing locations for research, which would give scientists more locales for their lab work.
The products on the market have overwhelmed the material available for research, Kiel said, so there is plenty of work to be done to catch up. "You can't just work with what's on the shelf down the street," she said.
The UC-Davis also offers a course on hemp breeding and seed production, and another on the biology, genetics, biochemistry and pharmacology of cannabis. At UC-Davis Health, medical students and biology majors can attend a course on the physiology of cannabis and cannabinoids, spokeswoman Amy Quinton said.
UCLA also started a Cannabis Research Initiative that offers symposiums and medical research on the physiology of cannabis.
Smaller schools participate
Smaller regional universities are also getting into the cannabis degree business, because their students want the jobs in the pot economy.
At 2,000-student Lake Superior State University in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., near the Canadian border, the chemistry department has launched a cannabis analytic chemistry program. The school bills it as the "first degree program in the United States focusing on the quantitative analysis of cannabis-related compounds and contaminants," according to its website.
Chemical analysts in the cannabis industry can earn as much as $72,000 per year, the university says.
"For us, it was an easy decision when the state of Michigan legalized marijuana. That began a strong look at what would happen when a multibillion-dollar industry was delivered into the marketplace with very little scientific research behind it," university President Rodney Hanley said.
Canadian student base
Canada, right across the St. Marys River in Michigan, has legalized marijuana nationally, and the school hopes to draw from the Canadian student base, as well, Hanley said.
Junior Justin Blaylock, 20, who's double-majoring in chemistry and analytic cannabis chemistry, said he hopes to break into the marijuana industry.
"The cannabis industry is booming and fast-growing as more and more states are legalizing it," Blaylock said. "The school is offering a streamlined degree, so I can gain those skills. I want to be part of it."
The cannabis plant is chemically complex with multiple interacting phytocannabinoids, and research has been sparse.
"These students are literally writing the textbook every day. They're trailblazers," Hanley said.
The school just installed a multimillion-dollar suite of high-tech instruments, including nuclear and infrared spectrometers, as well as multiple chromatograph machines and DNA processors.
"We're being accelerated out of the dark ages with research in this plant," said Steve Johnson, dean of the College of Science and the Environment.
Lake Superior State University also offers a bachelor's degree program in cannabis business.
The school's website says the program is designed for "future managers, supervisors, and business development leaders within a commercial enterprise. The program tailors the basics of business management principles to specific cannabis business functions and operations."
With the quick spread of medical cannabis approval across the United States, some states were caught off-guard by the need for qualified staff to work in dispensaries and how to determine what kinds of certification should be developed, said Debbie Churgai, interim director of Americans for Safe Access, a medical cannabis advocacy group.
To fill the void, various private training institutes have sprung up, such as Denver-based Clover Leaf University, with satellite classes in New York City, Las Vegas, Boston, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Providence, R.I., Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Honolulu and Portland, Maine.
Aspiring bud tenders or dispensary managers can attend a virtual class for $399 to $1,800 to learn the the cannabis business.
Churgai urged caution in selected a training organization, suggesting that prospective students ask about accreditation and universal standards.
Two years ago, Americans for Safe Access offered its own curriculum to University of Maryland for a proposed medical cannabis jobs training program for the state of Maryland, which had just approved medical cannabis. But the university decided against implementation, Churgai said.
In June, the university rolled out a master's degree, through its School of Pharmacy, in medical cannabis and therapeutics.
"We're excited that universities are finally taking the steps to teach the medical profession about medical cannabis," Churgai said. "Whether it's in the lab or manufacturing, cultivation or at a dispensary, it's so important to understand how to work safely in the cannabis business, especially if you're producing medicine."
Many universities still keep cannabis at arms length.
Oregon State University's cannabis research policy clearly states that the school can only conduct research that is within the DEA's guidelines. Oregon was one of the first states to legalize recreational and medical marijuana.
"OSU is the recipient of considerable federal funding for research, education, outreach and capital projects. Accepting federal funding obligates the university to comply with the Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act and the Drug-Free Workplace Act," the school's website says.
"Until both federal and state laws concur on the cultivation of cannabis within Oregon, OSU cannot provide instruction on how to grow, manufacture or dispense, which includes the provision of diagnostic services, recommendations and/or other information regarding the production, management and/or processing of marijuana."
Some medical schools offer seminars on cannabis for doctors and hospital personnel, such as University of Vermont's Larner College of Medicine. Vermont voters approved recreational cannabis in Vermont last year, and it will start appearing at dispensaries in January.
The school offers a full semester of cannabis pharmacology education and a seven-week online certificate program in medical cannabis.
"We have not seen any tension with federal issues on the education side," said Kalev Freeman, of university's Medical Cannabis Center Research and Education Center.
"Our programs all have an evidence-based approach, and we focus specifically on medical applications -- including potential benefits and risks to individual patients and public health," Freeman wrote in an email. "Also, we do not support social or recreational use of cannabis."
Federal regulations do limit the school's ability to conduct research, Freeman said.
Other schools are creating a buffer by only offering non-accredited classes, as was the case for an industrial hemp class taught at a local community college by Kirk Gobel, a Greeley, Colo. land consultant.
Industrial hemp, a cannabis cousin of THC-laden marijuana, was removed from Schedule 1 status by the DEA with the 2018 Farm Bill. Implementation of federal provisions are moving ahead.
The school only uses federal funds for student financial assistance, which only applies to "for-credit courses," Gobel said.
"We ran the hemp course through a workforce program that offers a certificate, but no credit," Gobel said in an email. "Since no federal funds were applicable and we have the full support of our department dean and the board of directors, there was no conflict" with the federal government.