June 10, 2023

A Truly Dope Degree

Welcome to LSSU’s Cannabis Center of Excellence, a pioneer of higher learning
By Todd VanSickle | April 11, 2020

When Dr. Rod Hanley became the tenth president of Lake Superior State University in 2018, he knew it was a time for a change.
“I pulled in the provost Dr. Lynn Gillette, and I said, ‘You know we need to form some new academic programs,’” Dr. Hanley said. “We haven't had new academic programs at the institution in quite some time, and we need to be thinking in that direction.”
Brewery and distillery sciences were his first inclinations, but his colleagues suggested cannabis chemistry — something no other school was offering.
“So, I went and did a little bit of homework, and what I did was I went to the Google machine,” Dr. Hanley said during the opening of the LSSU Cannabis Center of Excellence on Feb. 21. “And I found some facts.”
According to the LSSU president’s research, economists predict that by 2025 the medicinal marijuana industry will be greater than $100 billion in the United States alone. The global legal marijuana market is projected to reach $150 billion by 2025.
As expected in such a robust industry, there is a growing demand for skilled workers. In 2019, there were 211,000 cannabis jobs in the U.S., according to a study by Whitney Economics. Additionally, the cannabis workforce increased 110 percent in three years.
The promise and predictions of the burgeoning industry convinced Dr. Hanley there would be a need for a program that would train and prepare students for the growing marijuana industry. The LSSU cannabis chemistry program was born.
To date, LSSU has invested more than $2 million in the Cannabis Center of Excellence, outfitting it with state-of-the-art instruments and partnering with Agilent Technologies, an analytical laboratory instrument-manufacturing company.
“There’s been significant investment,” said Dr. Steve Johnson, LSSU College of Science and Environment dean. “But in reality, the way that this market is emerging, I think it'll pay for itself in terms of student enrollment numbers and things like that.”
According to Dr. Johnson, about 50 students are already enrolled in cannabis chemistry, either studying for a bachelor’s degree or an associate degree in cannabis science, which is a two-year degree. The program is only offered to undergraduate students, but the dean expects numbers to double next year; he has already seen an uptick in enrollment among students from Canada, where marijuana is federally legal.
LSSU touts being ahead of the curve, noting it’s the first university to offer such chemistry courses.  The Upper Peninsula institution now hopes to set the standard in the field of cannabis studies.
“It was on the horizon, and it was kind of serendipitous that Canada had federally legalized, and then Michigan went ahead with the adult use,” Dr. Johnson said.  “In terms of cannabis chemistry, we were the first, but we are looking to be the best because eventually you'll have other universities jumping on board. But we will already be established.”
Although the school’s mission to introduce cannabis studies is in line with state laws, the federal law still poses some challenges because cannabis with a THC content higher than 3.5 percent is still considered illegal. The college’s situation is made even more complicated because the school and its students receive federal funding. However, LSSU is taking the proper steps to insure it is compliant with all laws in regards to marijuana, according to LSSU assistant professor of bio-analytical chemistry Ben Southwell.
Michigan law requires students to be 21 to be able to work with cannabis products, so LSSU students in their freshman and sophomore years work solely with hemp, which has a low THC concentration — distinguishing it from marijuana.
“There is no physical difference between the plants,” said Southwell. “It's kind of a common misconception.  We've met the state criteria, and we're working with the federal government right now including the DEA and the National Institutes of Health to procure the appropriate licenses.”
Currently, there is no marijuana being studied at LSSU, but Southwell is optimistic that the DEA registration and federal government approval will be granted and the school will be able to move forward with studying marijuana no matter its THC content.
“There's actually one supplier, so as a federal institution you have to buy your product from the University of Mississippi. They carry the sole contract to provide all the marijuana for any federally funded research,” Southwell said. “It's been that way since the ’70s.”
LSSU has partnered with local grow operations in Detroit and Marquette that specialize in hemp products.
“They've been growing hemp products that are below the THC concentration, so they're safe for us to use in our classes,” Southwell said.
As the marijuana industry continues to grow in Michigan and throughout the U.S., Southwell predicts the need for professionally trained workers because they’re critical to ensure consumer safety and product quality.
“I would argue it's critical to public safety, because bad products just cause problems,” Southwell said, who pointed to the marijuana vaping crises last year that resulted in scores of deaths, most likely linked to the additive Vitamin E acetate. “That was kind of due to an industry that's relatively inexperienced. So providing professionals that are trained in how to do these tests and how to interpret these tests and how to talk the science to the industry will be needed.”
The professor said LSSU’s cannabis studies program is not a joke, and his students will have opportunities to work in a wide variety of jobs across many industries.
“It is not by any means a fluffy degree, a “get high” degree — pick any of those adjectives you want to,” Southwell said. “It’s a chemistry degree that focuses in on this product. There’s a lot of science behind it that is very technical. We hope to be providing quality health products, making product safety and ensuring law enforcement compliance.”
There are numerous labs springing up around the state doing more non-medical recreational marijuana compliance testing, added Southwell. LSSU has already partnered with a few of the labs that offer students summer internships.
First year student Lilah Fullford, of Indian River, was drawn to LSSU because of its cannabis program.
“I think we’re getting our foot in the door in the very beginning,” Fullford said as she sat with three classmates in the common area outside the Cannabis Center of Excellence. “I think it's going to start in places like this. There's going to be such a huge demand for educated, informed workers who can bring something new to the table. There is so much more to be known about cannabis and its properties. I mean, shoot, we come equipped with a cannabinoid system. There’s got to be something to that, right? I think that's pretty groovy.”


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