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Inside the US’s First Cannabis Chemistry Degree

Feb 15, 2019

Inside the US’s First Cannabis Chemistry Degree
Leo Bear-McGuinness

Science Writer

It was once unthinkable. In years gone by, academics would have scoffed at the idea. A cannabis degree? So students can study the very drug that has plagued campuses for decades? Highly unlikely. 

But attitudes change. In the past two decades, pieces of progressive cannabis legislation have swept the nation, creating a booming industry in their wake. And now cannabis, the once vilified contraband of universities everywhere, is stepping into the syllabus. 

From fall 2019, students can study the US’s first degree program focused exclusively on cannabis chemistry. Far from a stoner novelty course, the degree at Lake Superior State University, Michigan, will teach undergraduates the organic chemistry and instrumental analysis knowledge needed to gain employment in the country’s expanding cannabis analysis sector. 

Indeed, as the cannabis industry is expected to create nearly 500,000 jobs by 2022, it’s a wonder no university did it sooner.  

“Because of the legalization of cannabis, both here and in Canada, we knew there were going to be a lot of people working in this field, so there was going to be a big demand for campus work,” says R. Adam Mosey, PhD. As an associate professor at LSSU’s chemistry and environmental science department, Mosey is one of the key organizers of the new degree. 

“We figured that there was no one really training these analysts, not from an academic standpoint,” he told Analytical Cannabis. “So having a university developed program would be a really good fit for the industry.”

Of course, the degree wasn’t a requirement for the thousands of analytical chemists already employed in the cannabis industry, most of whom were trained through standard analytical chemistry honors. But the LSSU team stress that as the industry gets more competitive, graduates may need more specific cannabis skills to stand out.

“If you look at traditional analytical chemistry courses, they learn instrumentation and you get to apply to different systems. Obviously, we still want our graduates to have that knowledge,” says Mosey. 

“But when these graduates want to get into the workforce, the employers might say they want someone who’s worked with the cannabis matrix before, because it’s a really tricky matrix to work with.” 

Consisting of flowers, concentrates, and numerous phytocannabinoids, the complexity of the cannabis matrix is regularly cited as one of the key challenges to developing new analytical methods. By getting to grips with this plant model early in their education, Mosey and his colleagues hope that their students will be better prepared for professional analyses. Especially as they’ll be studying the plant hands-on. 

“We’re trying to get all the legal paperwork in place so we can actually work with cannabis material, so once the students have a hand on the plant, they’ll be really ready for the workforce.”

But, as the existence of a cannabis degree demonstrates, US marijuana legislation is changing rapidly. In LSSU’s state, Michigan, the drug became recreationally legal as recently as November 2018; regulated stores are expected to open in 2020. And like its more seasoned peers, such as California and Nevada, Michigan will undoubtedly further develop its own list of safety regulations. So, with new rules inbound, and other state legislation changing all the time, can a cannabis degree keep up?

“We’re going to be looking at the regulations as they change,” confirms Mosey. “And we’re going to have a number of students also, since we’re on the Michigan/Canadian border, who’ll be coming from Canada, and their regulations are also completely different. 

“So while we’ll be focusing analytical chemistry and biochemistry, we’re also going to try to keep updating the course, to be in-keeping with regulations. As new pesticides need to be tested for, we want to be able to test for those, and more metals and mycotoxins. We definitely want to be at the forefront of showing students how to look for these.”

As a once ‘underground industry’ with roots in the counterculture and the startup scenes, the cannabis sector can be an enticing field to work in. And with an average starting salary of $72,000, cannabis analyst jobs can certainly gain the interest of undergraduates. Which is why, even before the application opening date, the team at LSSU are optimistic about filling up their first class. 

“There has been a large amount of interest in terms of web traffic and inquires, even though it’s only been a few weeks,” says Steven Johnson, PhD, Associate Professor at LSSU. “The significance of that is very exciting.”

But being on trend is one thing. Setting the trend is another. If a success, LSSU’s cannabis chemistry degree could go on to become one of the must-have qualifications in the industry. And with great success, come copycats. 

“I do believe this will be a trend in American universities, even other universities in Michigan,” says Mosey. 

“There have been a lot of rumors of universities looking into a very similar program, and I think this will be something that will be popping up again and again across the states.”

LSSU’s Cannabis Chemistry is offered in baccalaureate and associate degrees. It will begin its first year this fall. 

 

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