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Vermont Colleges Look to Capitalize on the Cannabis Boom

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SUE NORTON
  • Sue Norton

The class called Medical Cannabis, an elective offered at the University of Vermont, meets in a low-ceilinged auditorium on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 4:25 p.m. Karen Lounsbury, a professor of pharmacology who co-teaches the course, has already heard every possible joke about this time slot. Her typical dry response: "We give the students five minutes to let things take effect."

To be clear, showing up stoned is not encouraged or in any way permitted, but the lectures do have an in-jokiness about them. During a class near the end of the semester, Monique McHenry, an assistant professor of pharmacology, presented a PowerPoint slide with a graph illustrating the relatively high price of legal cannabis compared to the price of illegal cannabis — which, for the purposes of the course, means the stuff you might buy from your neighbor.  

"Does anybody in here know what the average illegal market price per pound is for marijuana?" McHenry asked. Nobody raised a hand. McHenry let out a slightly self-conscious giggle. "Good to know," she said.

Medical Cannabis, dedicated to the biology of the plant and the sociopolitical morass surrounding its use, is open to students in UVM's graduate pharmacology, biochemistry and medical science programs, as well as upper-level undergraduate science majors. In the context of the course, emphasized Lounsbury, the preferred nomenclature is cannabis, never "marijuana," a term fraught with Prohibition Era animosity toward the drug's perceived foreignness. (But, as the phrasing of McHenry's question suggests, old habits die hard.) According to Lounsbury, the point of the class isn't to encourage the future medical professionals of America to hitch their wagons to Big Canna but to give them scientifically vetted information so that they're not relying on Google's vast, undifferentiated pool of flotsam.

Since Lounsbury first offered the course in 2016, she said, the cannabis landscape has changed dramatically: "I have to redo my slides every year, because there's always new legislation, new research, new clinical trials, new topics that emerge as the medical and recreational markets continue to grow."

While the field of cannabis studies remains on the fringes of academia, hampered by political hurdles and barriers to funding, colleges and universities seem to be warming to the notion that this still-controversial plant merits serious study. At the end of April, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University alumnus donated $9 million to his alma maters to fund studies on the effects of cannabis on the brain. The gift was reportedly the largest to date in support of independent research on cannabinoids.

In 2016, UVM became the first medical school in the country to offer a noncredit certificate program in cannabis science and medicine. McHenry, who also serves as the program's director, said there's a waiting list every year.

Other Vermont institutions are starting to capitalize on the cannabis rush. In September, Vermont Technical College will offer a CBD and greenhouse cash crop certificate, which will provide training in the science and regulatory protocols of CBD cultivation over three two-day sessions.

At Champlain College, students will be able to study cannabis marketing as an elective starting this fall. The course, intended for upper-level students, examines the evolution of the cannabis industry and the legal and cultural shifts taking place across the country as cannabis moves from contraband to commodity.

"We've always been responsive to emerging fields, which I think is one of our strengths as an institution," said Laurie Quinn, Champlain College's senior vice president for academics. "In our curriculum, we place a strong emphasis on what is relevant, and it wouldn't be responsible to act as if this major conversation around cannabis weren't happening." She added: "We're not promoting cannabis; we're helping students be thoughtful and considerate as they prepare to enter a world where this is the reality."

Marketing professor Elaine Young, who designed the course, is practically giddy about the opportunity to dedicate a semester to the subject. "The emergence of the cannabis market is such a rich place for academic study," she said. "How many times do you get the chance to be in the middle of something this huge?"

Huge is probably the right word, particularly from an economic standpoint. In 2018, legal cannabis sales in North America totaled nearly $12 billion, according to New Frontier Data, which tracks the cannabis industry. By 2027, sales are projected to reach $47.3 billion. That boom means a corollary increase in cannabis-sector jobs: New Frontier estimates that by 2025, the industry will employ at least 630,000 workers. Globally, cannabis is expected to become a $57 billion industry within the next decade.

For colleges and universities in Vermont facing declining enrollment and budget deficits, like Castleton University, that projected growth represents an opportunity to attract students with courses and certificate programs that promise to prepare them for in-demand jobs. This fall, Castleton will offer a cannabis studies certificate, a multidisciplinary program that combines sociology, business, philosophy and industry training in the form of an internship.

Sociology and anthropology professor Phil Lamy, one of the program's founders, initially wanted to design a course of study that would provide a counterweight to what he and his colleagues felt was a staggering amount of misinformation circulating in the public discourse around cannabis.

"Over the past few years, a lot of the commentary from law enforcement and the medical establishment has sounded like stuff you'd hear in the 1930s," said Lamy. "Like smoking marijuana leads to addiction, which has not been confirmed. Or that smoking marijuana leads to the same diseases caused by smoking cigarettes, which has also not been proven. So we decided it was our duty, as academics, to inform people and get involved in the debate."

Unlike the UVM and VTC certificate programs, the Castleton program will be integrated into the university's standard course catalog; students can sign up for individual classes — such as Cannabis, Culture & Consciousness, which focuses on the socially constructed role of cannabis — without committing to the entire three-course program.

After completing the three core classes, students will be eligible for a semester-long internship at a Vermont cannabis company. So far, said Lamy, several businesses — including Luce Farm, a hemp grower in Bethel; and Grassroots Vermont, a dispensary in Brandon — have expressed interest in taking on Castleton interns.

"We've been getting calls and emails from cannabis organizations saying that they want to hire our students. They don't want people who just like weed; they're looking for people with professional skills," said Lamy.

Robert Riggen, director of patient services at Grassroots Vermont, is eager to see more applicants with cannabis credentials. "Nobody employed at our dispensary currently has a certificate or degree specifically in cannabis," he said. "As one of the hiring managers, I can say that if someone had such a degree or certificate, they would certainly stand out."

But the regulatory landscape those job seekers are about to enter is strange, to say the least. Case in point: When Castleton first developed the cannabis studies program, said Lamy, the administration wanted to ensure that the subject matter, a federally banned substance, wouldn't preclude students from using their federal loans to cover the cost of the credits.

According to Maurice Ouimet, Castleton's dean of enrollment, a Department of Education official informed him that students would only be eligible to use their federal loans toward cannabis courses if they were enrolled in 15 credits for the semester; for context, a full course load, per the feds, is 12 credits. Based on that logic, as Ouimet understood it, a student's federal loans would cover the cost of a cannabis course only if that student were taking more than the federally established minimum number of credits in a given semester — in this case, five classes rather than four.

Upon hearing this news, Lamy said, Castleton scuttled plans to offer cannabis courses over the summer. "Our goal was to make the program accessible to nontraditional students and people with full-time jobs, but if they receive federal loans, those wouldn't apply for individual summer courses," he said.

To head off any possible issues, Castleton posted a disclaimer on the cannabis studies certificate program web page, part of which reads: "Federal financial aid cannot be used to cover the cost of any cannabis course. Federal financial aid can be applied toward a 12 credit (full-time) course load not including cannabis courses ... It is important to note that students who drop below 15 credits and remain enrolled in a cannabis course will be billed directly for the cannabis course credits."

In spite of the cautionary language, said Lamy, all three certificate program courses have already filled up for the fall semester. But something seemed fishy to him about the Department of Education official's assessment of federal loan eligibility.

"I have found no written rules to that effect, and it sounds, well, kind of arbitrary," he said. "I don't know if there's any legal basis to what we were told, but we're trying to get some of our legislators involved to clear that up."

Given the murky relationship between state and federal cannabis laws, what authority, if any, does the federal Department of Education have in determining whether a student can use federal loans to cover courses in a program like Castleton's? According to Scott Giles, president of the Vermont Student Assistance Corporation, the answer is most likely none.

"To the best of my knowledge, there is no document, policy or regulation that would allow the Department of Education to deny financial aid coverage based on the content of a course offered by an accredited institution as part of a degree program," he said.

But Lamy seems undeterred by what will most likely turn into a mind-numbing game of bureaucracy telephone.

"Cannabis is in a really chaotic space right now — it's exploding, but it's still illegal," he said. "It's that chaos that makes it all the more important to educate people."

The original print version of this article was headlined "Higher Ed | Vermont colleges and universities look to capitalize on the cannabis boom"