The U.S. cannabis market, if legalized, could be worth anywhere from $28 billion to $41 billion by 2028.
And as more and more states move toward legalization, the cannabis industry is growing quickly, creating a demand for workers with a broad range of skills, from accounting and logistics to farming and production. Sabas Carrillo, CEO of cannabis industry accounting and consulting firm Adnant Consulting, tells CNBC Make It that the retail side of the cannabis industry alone has likely created 50,000 to 100,000 jobs per state.
The demand for talent has led to the creation of for-profit cannabis-centered colleges and has inspired traditional, non-profit four-year schools to offer courses focused on the chemistry and business of cannabis. But while programs like these may lend increased professional credibility to the cannabis industry, recruiters say that studying cannabis isn't necessarily the surest route to a job.
In 1996, California became the first state to legalize medical uses of cannabis. During the 1990s, Alaska, Maine, Oregon, Washington and Washington, D.C. each passed their own laws legalizing medical cannabis, and by the following decade, eight more states had joined them.
Around this time, for-profit schools offering cannabis industry-focused education, like Cannabis Training University and Clover Leaf University, began sprouting up. Oaksterdam University — its name a combination of "Oakland," where the school is located, and "Amsterdam," often considered the cannabis capital of the world — was founded in 2007.
"You only have to be 18. You don't have to have graduated from college or high school in order to apply," Dale Sky Jones, executive chancellor, president and CEO of Oaksterdam tells CNBC Make It. "You really just have to be of age, and that's really important to consider because so many people were criminalized before they even finished high school. Maybe they weren't able to get a G.E.D., and now that they have a skill set that's applicable to a new industry, they might actually be successful."
Oaksterdam offers courses ranging from a 14-week, $1,895 "Horticulture Semester" to a one-day, $400 "Outdoor Horticulture Seminar." The school is unaccredited and for profit; Jones says it can be difficult for schools training students to work in the cannabis industry to receive accreditation or non-profit status for legal reasons. Its tongue-in-cheek logo draws inspiration from a familiar Ivy League crest.
"The intention is for Oaksterdam to simply be the Harvard of education for the cannabis industry," Jones says.
Because Oaksterdam is unaccredited, students cannot use Pell Grants, federal student loans or federal work study to pay for classes, though scholarships are available. The school does not accept G.I. Bill benefits out of concern that a veteran might lose access to other benefits for being connected to the school.
Oaksterdam claims to have educated over 40,000 students through their mission to "provide students with the knowledge and skills needed to lead and succeed in the evolving cannabis industry."
Traditional four-year colleges have also begun offering individual courses on the cannabis industry. In 2017, Northern Michigan University (NMU) became the first public university to offer a four-year degree in Medicinal Plant Chemistry, a program designed to "prepare students for success in emerging industries related to medicinal plant production, analysis and distribution."
"There is great demand for qualified technical personnel and great opportunities for skilled entrepreneurs," Mark Paulsen, head of the NMU chemistry department said at the time. "Our focus will be on analyzing variations in plant compounds and the impacts of different growing and processing methods. The knowledge and skills acquired are applicable to the cannabis industry, but also translate to the broader field of natural products chemistry and a wide range of professional opportunities."
Today, the University of California, Davis offers a course titled "Physiology of Cannabis," Cornell University offers "Cannabis: Biology, Society and Industry" and Harvard Law School offers "Cannabis Law."
But industry insiders say that an academic background in cannabis — whether earned with a certificate from a school like Oaksterdam or in a Harvard lecture hall — is not always necessary for landing a position in the industry, which values workers' experience over their educational background.
"These courses might be something to get someone interested in the industry, or to learn about the industry, or to decide if they want to join it," Peter Vogel, CEO of cannabis jobs site Leafwire, tells CNBC Make It. "But the real skill sets the industry needs just mirror the rest of the business world."
Vogel points to business services role within the cannabis industry — accounting, legal, human resources and marketing — as significant areas of opportunity for job seekers. Cannabis companies are eager to find candidates with experience in their line of work, rather than a specific education in cannabis, he says. "If you're an experienced marketer and advertiser and have built brands, you can do that exact same thing in cannabis. It's just another product."
Karson Humiston is the founder and CEO of Vangst, a Denver-based cannabis jobs recruiting firm. She tells CNBC Make It that while coursework might give a job seeker an edge, cannabis companies are comfortable hiring from a broad range of job seekers. "Our customers are pretty open to bringing candidates in from outside of the industry and training them in the industry," she says.
And for those eager to launch a career in cannabis but wondering whether they need to invest in education, Carrillo, the CEO of Adnant Consulting, has clear advice.
"If you're interested in the cannabis space and you want to get into it, I would just urge you to go get into it now," he says. "The demand is great right now and to a large extent, companies just need bodies — smart people, hungry people, people that are willing to work their a---s off."
Parallels can be drawn to the tech industry, where the labor market demands were so high that colleges were forced to make major investments in computer science programs and coding bootcamps began sprouting up across the country. But while coding and tech skills can be applied to jobs in nearly every industry, cannabis-specific skills are not as transferable.
"I see these like quick and dirty, 'Come to us for six weeks and get your degree to be a budtender' schools. That terrifies me, because then people get stuck with debt and a degree that is not transferable to a normal community college or four-year institution," says Carrillo.
Carrillo is also concerned about the impact that formalizing cannabis education could have on an industry that is already grappling with the legacy of the War on Drugs. The millions of Americans who were incarcerated for cannabis-related crimes are not likely to have the opportunity to attend an Ivy League school and take classes about cannabis.
The ACLU estimates that between 2001 and 2010, 8.2 million Americans were arrested for marijuana-related charges, 88% of which were for possession. Even though white and black Americans use marijuana at roughly equal rates, black people are 3.73 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana-related offenses.
People with criminal convictions for possessing or selling drugs often face difficulties finding employment, including in the cannabis industry, despite recent efforts within the industry to hire formerly incarcerated individuals.
Carrillo says he hopes the cannabis industry can have a role in uplifting those who were impacted by the criminalization of cannabis, that states will wipe out cannabis-related convictions and that cannabis businesses will get rid of education requirements for candidates.
And Jones says cannabis colleges like Oaksterdam have a role to play. In January, the school announced a bootcamp that would help minority- and women-owned businesses obtain cannabis licenses in Missouri, a state that recently legalized medical cannabis. She also says that Oaksterdam teaches students about the importance of helping those negatively impacted by cannabis criminalization.
"We try to teach our students that entering the cannabis industry shouldn't just be transitional. It can and should be transformational. We all have a responsibility to be part of the solution, not part of the problem," she says. "I hope you'd go make money. Here's what to do with some of it once you do. We're just really trying to make this industry a little better."