Students at Colorado State University-Pueblo who want to pursue careers in the cannabis industry now have a degree to match their ambition.
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The university recently announced a four-year Bachelor’s of Science in Cannabis Biology and Chemistry, with enrollment beginning the fall semester of 2020.
Dr. David Lempuhl, dean of the University’s College of Science and Mathematics, told Wikileaf that the degree “contains a core of chemistry and biology, similar to what a biochemistry degree might have.”
However, once students get a solid foundation in these disciplines, they can start to take courses during their junior and senior years “that contain more cannabis [and] natural products specific content to help give students an advantage for working in that industry or pursuing research related to cannabis.”
The degree features courses with titles including Cannabis Physiology and Growth, Natural Products Extraction and Analysis, and Medicinal Plant Biochemistry, according to the school’s listed course offerings.
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Since the program is not slated to begin until the fall, interested students will have to apply as either biology or chemistry majors.
Students shouldn't expect to blaze through the program
Once at school, they will choose from two courses of study, emphasizing either natural products or analytical chemistry. Neither of these tracks is a slouch, and both require intensive courses in organic chemistry, biology, and toxicology.
“This program is purposefully quite rigorous,” said Dr. Lempuhl. “Students will have to complete a year of general chemistry and a year of organic chemistry along with biology, math including calculus, and physics.
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With the right selection of electives, students can meet the prerequisites required for graduate school or medical school so this is not an “easy” major.”
If students looking for an easy, weed-themed A are in for what Dr. Lempuhl called “a rude awakening,” the scientific integrity of the program is good news for the cannabis industry.
Despite state legalization, cannabis research is scarce
Although medical marijuana has been legal in many states for decades, and recreational marijuana is approaching its first decade since Colorado and Washington first legalized it in 2012, there is still a dearth of scientific research and technical expertise in the industry.
In a 2017 report, the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine called for “a national cannabis research agenda that addresses key gaps in the evidence base.” As a result of the push for more research, and of the increasing technical sophistication of marijuana supply chains, the industry offers scientists “expanding career opportunities, good pay, and scientific challenges” that are “plentiful and significant,” according to Science Magazine.
The new cannabis majors at CSU-Pueblo “will be well-trained as scientists and will be capable of investigating any number of areas within chemistry or biology,” said Dr. Lempuhl.
“A lot of pseudo-science is currently being propagated and so having people educated to look at data in an unbiased manner is very important. I see our graduates helping to dispel myths around cannabis and supporting real science which ideally will improve society by improving safety and helping regulators with oversight of the industry.”
CSU-Pueblo is already a trailblazer in the field of academic cannabis that hosts research and scholarship in both sciences and humanities. It is home to the Institute of Cannabis Research, founded in 2016, which holds interdisciplinary conferences, collaborates with state agencies, and publishes the Journal of Cannabis Research.
It is also planning to open a cannabinoid research center to study the chemistry of marijuana’s signature compounds.
Students can also minor in cannabis studies
The university also offers an undergraduate minor in Cannabis Studies that gives students a primer in the legal, political, and historical context of marijuana.
This humanities-focused minor would be an option for students in the new Bachelor’s of Science program, according to Dr. Lempuhl, and he said it ”would give them another perspective that might be useful as they enter their post-higher education lives.”
One sticking point in the undergraduate curriculum: it is federally compliant, meaning that students will be able to work with hemp, but not with marijuana that has a THC content greater than 3%.
“Since the plant is the same with differences only in component concentrations, students working with hemp (which we have a Colorado Department of Agriculture license to work with) will not be held back in any way,” said Dr. Lempuhl. “If students are looking to simply improve their growing technique or increase the THC content of their products, this is not the degree for them. "
The new program makes CSU-Pueblo one of the only accredited schools in the United States to offer a four-year degree in a cannabis-related field.
Joining the ranks of other universities before it
In 2017, Northern Michigan University became the first to offer a four-year cannabis degree, with a program in medicinal plant chemistry. Several other universities now offer courses on marijuana, including the University of California Davis and Cornell University.
One thing that distinguishes CSU-Pueblo from others offering cannabis coursework is its notably diverse campus, a trait missing from the cannabis industry in general.
The university is a federally designated Hispanic Serving Institution, with more than a quarter of undergraduates in that demographic, and almost fifty percent of its students are non-white, according to the university website.
According to U.S. News and World Report, nearly half of the school’s undergraduates are first-generation college students.
Bringing equity and inclusiveness to the field
Meanwhile, a survey of the marijuana industry in 2017 found that more than 80% of cannabis business owners were white, and although demographic data is not yet available for Colorado’s industry, the state’s legislature is considering measures to increase equity and inclusion for minorities in the field.
A statement on Colorado State University’s website says “a Cannabis Biology and Chemistry program at a Hispanic-Serving Institution like CSU-Pueblo will address the nationwide demand for diversity in employment within the industrial hemp and cannabis industries.”
Further enhancing the school’s draw as a destination for aspiring cannabis professionals is the city of Pueblo’s reputation as a cannabis mecca. The former steel industry company town, two hours south of Denver, has found new life in Colorado’s “green rush.”
According to a 2017 report by the university’s Institute for Cannabis research, “legal cannabis is attracting a new generation of migrants to Pueblo.” The city has even taken advantage of marijuana tax revenues to offer possibly the world’s first cannabis tax-funded college scholarship program, according to the Institute’s report.
As more states consider legalizing marijuana, including a handful that could legalize this year, the demand for trained professionals in the cannabis industry is likely to grow.
Also driving demand for trained cannabis biochemists is the booming market for extract products, which is predicted to grow more than 20% by 2025 according to the market analysis company Grand View Research.
These trends mean that CSU-Pueblo will likely not be the last to offer serious academic training in the cannabis field.