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U.S. Cannabis Legalization and the Emergent Educational Landscape

As more states legalize cannabis, the demand for properly trained professionals is going to get higher as well.
As more states legalize cannabis, the demand for properly trained professionals is going to get higher as well.

In this article, we examine how education and training programs have emerged to address the human resource needs of a new, legal cannabis industry in the United States.

Cannabis legalization is sweeping the world. In 2013, Uruguay became the first country to legalize adult-use recreational cannabis nationwide. By 2022, Canada, Georgia, Malta, Mexico and South Africa have also fully legalized cannabis use, in addition to 50 other countries.[1] While U.S. federal policy has lagged, nineteen states, two territories and the District of Columbia have independently legalized adult (recreational) use of cannabis, along with the forty that will newly allow medical marijuana in 2022.

Along with legalization comes an entirely new legal economy. Annual sales of legal cannabis in the U.S. are expected to reach $45.8 billion by 2025[2], with a total economic impact of $160 billion.[3] The number of cannabis consumers is expected to grow to about 50 million by that same year.[4] 321,000 Americans were already employed in the legal cannabis industry in 2021—more than the total number of electrical engineers, paramedics and dentists.[5] Based on current growth projections, we can safely predict that millions of Americans will be employed in this industry within a decade.[6]

The Emergence of Cannabis Education and Training

All industries have unique educational and training needs, and cannabis is no different. The cannabis industry needs trained entry—and mid-level personnel across all functional areas—“seed-to-sale” in cannabis parlance—in relatively short order. Every state has created unique market conditions through its own regulatory and rule-setting process, generally involving the segmentation of industry license types (i.e., cultivator, retailer, processor, distributor, consumption venue etc.), social justice objectives (i.e., DEI, ex-felon and legacy licensees, economic impact zones and other local and idiosyncratic carve-outs). Each of these license types has its own training needs. The constellation of proprietary education providers and traditionally accredited schools, education accreditors and standards organizations, other industry actors and, of course, students constitute this education ecosystem. 

Cannabis schools already have emerged in various locations and online to meet the demand. Generally, courses offered cluster in three broad areas—cultivation, processing and manufacturing, and retail. Each of these broad areas can have dozens of specialized topics. Common curricula often focus on regulatory compliance, security and related matters. Additional state-mandated training courses are also often on the menu. 

First Schools Established

U.S. federal prohibition of cannabis has long discouraged conventional educational institutions—which are highly dependent on federal funding—from entering the field. As a result, enterprising educators often emerging from the formerly illegal cannabis industry, sometimes referred to as legacy operators, have taken the lead in establishing proprietary educational institutions to address industry needs. Legacy knowledge, in cannabis industry parlance, refers to knowledge previously known only within the black market and adopted by people who can only now emerge from the shadows. Because traditionally accredited educational institutions have habitually avoided any programming related to cannabis, they lack the legacy knowledge and human resources to rapidly set up industry training programs.

In 2007, the first dedicated cannabis school was established in Oakland, California. Oaksterdam University claims to be the world’s first cannabis college, with the mission to “legitimize the business and work to change the law to make cannabis legal.”[7] By 2009, Oaksterdam was operating in a 30,000 sq. ft. facility with multiple classrooms, an auditorium, a hands-on grow lab, a theater and a 10,000-square-foot basement nursery. The university’s curriculum now covers all aspects of the medical marijuana industry, including horticulture, business management, budtending, law, politics, history, civics, economics, manufacturing, extraction, advocacy, hemp and pain management. As legalization has progressed, dozens of proprietary schools have emerged—most with asynchronous online training—and awarded self-defined certificates and micro-credentials.[8] Some have raised substantial private investment,[9] which means that the vast majority of meaningful training and education is currently provided by privately operated schools that variously call themselves colleges, universities, institutes and any of a dozen other brand-legitimizing combinations. Although conventionally accredited colleges and universities have increasingly dipped their toes in the water—albeit very tentatively—most education providers offering industry-ready training are these self-regulated proprietary trade schools.

Cannabis Education and State Mandates

Cannabis legalization does not mean the same thing as deregulation. In every state, existing or newly created agencies have been charged with implementing new licensing procedures, as well as developing comprehensive regulatory frameworks. As one would expect of a regulated industry like cannabis, various states now require specific training for those working in the field. State-mandated training creates a market for education, and many companies have stepped up to meet this need. For example, the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission now (2022) lists 23 Certified Responsible Vendor education providers qualified to deliver state-mandated training to individuals or companies. Approved trainers include both local Massachusetts entities, as well as national players in the cannabis education space.[10]

Provision of state-mandated training is a means for education program providers to gain both market access and legitimacy. While these training courses are generally low in cost, many companies find them to be an effective loss leader, attracting students who will then enroll in a more extensive array of optional courses. Interestingly, virtually all organizations participating in the state-mandated training space are proprietary providers and not traditionally accredited education institutions.

Companies which have significant multi-state strategies focused on mandated training include Cannabis Industry Institute, Cannabis Trainers, TCMI Global and Green CulturED. The last seems to have established state-mandated training as its flagship attribute, with courses offered to meet the requirements of Alaska, Colorado, Illinois, Massachusetts and West Virginia. The Green CulturED website states that “Our ‘Claim-to-Fame’ is Being the ‘Most Accredited (or Authorized)’ Training Provider in the Industry to ENSURE What We Do Actually Meets All Those Cannabis Regulator Requirements.”[11] Of course, there are many smaller players that participate in single state environments.

Traditionally Accredited Colleges and Universities

At this point, the reader may be wondering how traditional colleges and universities are addressing the market need driving the growth of proprietary schools. The answer to that is variably. As mentioned earlier, federal prohibition has made most accredited institutions gun-shy of all things cannabis. Even where state legalization has allowed some institutions to relax slightly, ongoing dependency on federal funding and other political considerations make many reluctant players. Furthermore, even in states that have already legalized, traditional institutions are largely cash poor, constitutionally slow moving and generally inclined to create academic degree programs rather than less prestigious vocational education and training programs, often despite external pressures to provide programming that responds to community needs in light of the new legal market.

How institutions participate depends on their institutional mandate, financial capacity to invest in new programs, risk tolerance, accreditation concerns, faculty buy-in and access to legacy expertise. The last is a formidable obstacle, since most institutions have assiduously avoided cannabis-related research of all types for decades.

One means of entry for traditionally accredited institutions is to utilizewhite-labeled programs developed by proprietary providers. Such courses are generally offered through continuing and professional education units within the institution and on a non-credit basis. Revenue is split, with the institution generally receiving 30–50% of the tuition fee.[12] Such partnerships allow institutions to access legacy knowledge and dip a toe in the market without actually having to invest in program development. For some, this may be as far as it goes; for others, it may be a stepping stone toward eventually offering their own homegrown programs. Northern Michigan University, runs the non-credit, white-labeled program alongside its own undergraduate degree program.   

Academy of Cannabis Science, Elevate Northeast Partners, Green Flower and Online Cannabis Education Partners are just some of the proprietary education providers that offer white-label curricula to traditionally accredited institutions.

Increasingly, traditionally accredited institutions are offering their own credit-based programs: minors, undergraduate degrees, graduate degrees and graduate certificates. The extent to which these more academically focused programs meet immediate market needs remains to be seen, but few traditional institutions are attempting to provide both immediate workforce training as well as advanced academic programs. New programs are rolling out steadily, however. This list is considered representative of the programs now emerging but is not intended to be complete.

Educational Anarchy and the Emergence of Standards

The cannabis education ecosystem, as of this writing, most resembles anarchy. With the federal government disengaged from all forward-facing cannabis policy and states largely acting as independent islands unto themselves, the education market has been absolutely unregulated and the educational initiatives and outcomes unexamined. Until very recently, accredited institutions would not entertain cannabis education and training programs, and private providers existed outside conventional quality assurance frameworks for educational institutions or programs.

Confusion is rife. For example, in much of the U.S. the terms college and university are unregulated, meaning that anyonemay incorporate those terms into the legal name of a business entity. There are many examples of cannabis education providers that have incorporated these terms into their brand identities; however, to have such a name does not imply any kind of institutional status or official recognition (i.e., a government charter), accreditation, not-for-profit or any other consequential status. Few private providers are constituted like a conventional educational institution; many are sole proprietorships that offer only asynchronous online training. But use of such terms certainly enhances legitimacy and marketability.

Apart from implied institutional status, there is also confusion over what constitutes a certificate. Such credentials are offered by virtually every private provider and some traditional institutions. However, certificates have no standard definition—they could be a one-hour online course at a fly-by-night school or 12 credit hours of traditional graduate courses, including months of study at a traditional university.

Still another source of confusion surrounds accreditation, a word bandied about by all but that is little understood. In the U.S. educational context, accreditation refers to a specific kind of process to which an institution voluntarily subjects itself as part of its continuous quality assurance program. While there are education accreditation associations for which some proprietary providers would be eligible, there is no evidence that any have yet been accredited, despite occasional marketing hyperbole.[13]

Often, other forms of recognition are claimed or asserted by implication to be equivalent to accreditation. The Cleveland College of Cannabis touts its registration (Certification# 2123/2163) with the Ohio Board of Career Colleges and Schools, allowing it to claim in 2022 that it was “the only State Approved Career School for Cannabis education east of Colorado.”[14] Until recently, state recognition as an approved trade school was really the highest level of recognition such proprietary institutions could aspire to.

The matter of standards is broader than just cannabis education. To bring a semblance of order to the nascent industry, other standards have begun to emerge. In 2014, FOCUS (Foundation of Cannabis Unified Standards) was established “to protect public health, consumer safety, and safeguard the environment by promoting integrity in the Cannabis industry.”[15] FOCUS is registered as a 501(c)3 not-for-profit standards development and third-party certification organization. FOCUS’s standards are primarily aimed at current good manufacturing practice (cGMP) in cultivation, retail, extraction, infused products, laboratory, security, sustainability and packaging and labeling. Lastly, in 2022, the ANSI[16] National Accreditation Board (ANAB) launched its Cannabis Certificate Accreditation Program (C-CAP). ANAB will accredit education providers that ensure learning outcomes are met for cannabis training courses, as evidenced by certificates issued. ANAB will not provide the training and certificates to individuals but will accredit the organizations who provide them. Programs seeking certification will be required to meet standards ANSI/ASTM E2659-18 Standard Practice for Certificate Programs and the new ASTM D8403 Standard Practice for Certificate Programs within the Cannabis and Hemp Industries, as well as any additional state requirements for Responsible Vendor Training, or similar mandates.[17]

These moves toward standards are gradually being adopted by some of the more prominent proprietary providers. It is noteworthy, for example, that Green Flower is targeting large multi-state operators (MSOs) with Standardized Credentials for the Cannabis Industry, explicitly informed by cGMP, FOCUS, and ANAB’s C-CAP.[18] As of writing, it does not appear that any traditionally accredited institutions have explicitly incorporated these standards into their cannabis programming.

Concluding Observations and the Future

Cannabis education and training is a very new, still-professionalizing field. It is notable that no U.S. based proprietary cannabis education or training organization is yet accredited by any national or regional educational accreditor. There are few venues where education providers and institutions compare approaches to cannabis education or where cannabis educators come together to share curriculum or approaches. Competition is high and incentives for collaboration are low. 

Nonetheless, cannabis education and training will continue to evolve at a rapid rate, as new U.S. and international markets open up over the next decade. Although U.S. markets remain balkanized due to federal prohibition, and cannabis itself cannot be transported across state lines, education and training can easily cross borders—and it does. While some existing proprietary providers have very local ambitions, others are clearly eyeing the global market and have developed elaborate growth plans. The same cannot be said for traditional colleges and universities, where interests are decidedly more local and generally lack strategic vision, so far. 

Don’t space out! Watch this space.


[1] Wikipedia. Accessed April 7, 2022.  As of April 2022, countries that have legalized medical use of cannabis include Argentina, Australia, Barbados, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Ecuador, Finland, Georgia, Germany, Greece, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Jamaica, Lebanon, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malawi, Malta, Mexico, Netherlands, New Zealand, North Macedonia, Norway, Panama, Peru, Poland, Portugal, Rwanda, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, San Marino, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Switzerland, Thailand, the United Kingdom, Uruguay, Vanuatu, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

[2] Headset, Inc., “Cannabis sales projections for US markets in 2025,” January 4, 2022.  Accessed April 3, 2022.

[3] Ross Lipson, “Where Is the Cannabis Industry Headed in 2022?” Forbes, February 21, 2022. Accessed April 3, 2022.  Other prognosticators are only somewhat less bullish; see, Flowhub, “Cannabis Industry Statistics 2021: How the essential industry performed last year.” Accessed April 4, 2022.

[4] Jan Conway, “U.S. sales of legal recreational cannabis 2019-2025”, Statista, January 21, 2022. Accessed hApril 3, 2022.

[5] Abha Bhattarai, “Greener pastures: Marijuana jobs are becoming a refuge for retail and restaurant workers,” Washington Post, September 24, 2021. Accessed April 3, 2022. If the incipient legal retail market is estimated to be about $25 billion, it is reasonable to assume that the still extant black market is many times larger.

[6] A search for “cannabis” jobs on Glass Door uncovered 7,047 jobs when accessed on April 4, 2002.,8.htm.

[7] Sam Whiting, “Richard Lee’s Oaksterdam U will teach you all you   need to know about the weed business,”San Francisco Chronicle, April 6, 2008. Accessed April 3, 2022.

[8] Only a handful of education providers offer hands-on training, which is generally considered an essential element by industry insiders. Examples include Oaksterdam University, Clover Leaf University, Green Flower, and Cleveland School of Cannabis.

[9] “Cannabis Education Company Green Flower Media Closes $20 Million Series A Financing,” Education Letter, July 3, 2019. Gale OneFile: Educator’s Reference Complete, Accessed April 17, 2022.

[10] Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission. Accessed March 29, 2022.

[11] Green Culture ED. Capitalization as it appears on the website. Accessed April 5, 2022.

[12]For example, Online Cannabis Education offers “Complete ‘Out of the Box’ Curriculum” through its network of traditional education institutions, which function as resellers and receive a 35% commission. Accessed April 5, 2022.

[13] Accreditation is essential for institutions seeking to recruit students eligible to receive federal financial aid. Eligible institutions must be accredited by an accreditor recognized by the US Department of Education and the Commission on Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).

[14] Cleveland School of Cannabis. Accessed March 29 2022.

[15] FOCUS  Foundation of Cannabis Unified Standards. Accessed April 2, 2022.

[16] The American National Standards Institute (ANSI) oversees standards and conformity assessment activities in the United States. Its mission is “to enhance both the global competitiveness of U.S. business and the U.S. quality of life by promoting and facilitating voluntary consensus standards and conformity assessment systems, and safeguarding their integrity.” Accessed April 3, 2022.

[17] ANSI National Accreditation Board (ANAB). Accessed March 29, 2022.

[18]GF Institute. Accessed April 2, 2022. Green Flower’s GF Institute appears to position the company as a membership-based standards organization.

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