ARNOLD, MARYLAND (Circa) - When Professor Shad Ewart brought a former student to talk into his business management class about his experience converting an artisanal lettuce farm to a cannabis farm in California, he thought it would just be an interesting one-off guest lecture. The class was engaged throughout the presentation, and at the end Dr. Ewart allowed students to stick around and ask his guest any remaining questions, while he himself jetted off to teach his next course.
But an hour later, when Dr. Ewart walked back by the classroom, there were twice the number of students gathered, still asking questions.
"And literally the light bulb went off above my head," Dr. Ewart said. "I said listen, they're interested in this. I've gotta develop a course for this."
So he pitched a formal class description -for a business class focused on the marijuana industry- to the community college. It was approved by the Maryland Higher Education Commission, and in January 2015 Ann Arundel Community College offered the course for the first time.
"It's rather popular," said Dr. Ewart, with a grin.
The beginning of the course also coincided with Maryland forming regulations and dolling out licenses for its new medical marijuana industry. As the course and the industry kept plodding toward the December 2017 opening date, it became obvious that the course was filling a training gap.
“I think there’s plenty of stuff out there for people who want to be - lets say in Maryland, a clinical director," said Dr. Ewart. "But what doesn’t exist is the path for a career program for entry level jobs."
In the last four years, 9 states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational marijuana. 30 states also have legalized medical marijuana. In 2016, the marijuana industry employed 122,814 people nationwide, and in 2017 it generated $9 billion of revenue.
There are many ways interested parties can enter the marijuana industry. On the west coast, medical marijuana was legalized in the 1990s, and there was a long-standing black market and illegal industry for recreational marijuana. Many of the entry-level workers in those days simply worked on the job.
As the industry grew, training programs popped up to help people find a way into the business. Oaksterdam, an unaccredited cannabis "university" has sites in Oakland, California and Denver, Colorado.
"But they're doing [the training] on a non-credit level," explained Dr. Ewart. "I think what you get with a college is you get the academic rigor."
Ann Arundel isn't the only college in the United States to offer cannabis-related courses. As early as 2013, Harvard Law School was offering a seminar on marijuana tax. The University of Vermont's school of Medicine currently offers online courses related to cannabis, and the University of Washington has a class for health practitioners on cannabis and chronic pain.
But Ann Arundel's class is one of the few - if not the only course - aimed at entry-level personnel and small business owners.
Ewart says the students in his class fall into two groups: those who want to start ancillary businesses that sell or create materials for the industry, or who want to work in the industry itself - at grow houses or dispensaries.
A few years ago, one of those students looking for a way into the industry was Sean Boone.
A Baltimore native, Boone took both a two-week Oaksterdam training course as well as Prof. Ewart's marijuana business class at Ann Arundel. From looking through the Maryland regulations in Ewart's class, Boone realized there was a gap in the law surrounding medical marijuana edibles. He developed a plan for an app that helps medical patients get edibles delivered to them on a one-off or repeated basis.
"We dissected the regulations, page by page," explained Boone. "Which led me to realize this business idea was possible."
After the course, Boone took on a couple different projects and full-time jobs in the cannabis industry, but eventually came back to the app he thought up in Ewart's class. He's now launching his business out of an office in Baltimore.
Boone says the class isn’t a substitute for on the job experience, but that it gave him the knowledge to be able to go out and get a job in the industry.
"It’s definitely important for people to be creating these curriculums [sic]," Boone said. "Right now in certain places, its like the wild wild west."
And after a few years in the business, Boone now has an additional evidence for encouraging formal training: he's now the one doing the hiring.
"I know when I’m hiring people I’m looking for people who have taken those steps to educate themselves," Boone explained. "Because this is still a substance that needs to be taken care of."
Boone isn't the only student to enter the industry after taking Ewart's course. The professor says one set of former students in the class already owned a limousine service, and came up with a business plan for providing transportation services for the medical marijuana industry. And another former student owns two a hydroponics shops - one in DC and one in Maryland.
“I compare this to the gold rush; I call it the green rush," said Ewart, explaining that while marijuana may be the gold of the industry, there are so many more opportunities surrounding that central product. "My schtick is to support those industries - the picks and shovels of the industry."
This class, though, is only the beginning. Professor Ewart has plans to create an entire accredited certificate program for the marijuana industry. Within the program, he says there will be tracks that lead toward different types of entry-level positions in the industry, like lab technician at a grow facility or patient care adviser in a dispensary. The program, though, is not just important for the students he sees on a regular basis.
"Really, the importance I think is for the industry itself," said Ewart. "For the industry to be recognized as something that is legitimate."