Gretchen Schmidt: Regulatory-Centered Education for Cannabis Professionals – Ganjapreneur

gretchen-schmidt:-regulatory-centered-education-for-cannabis-professionals-–-ganjapreneur

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With dozens of schools, colleges, and universities entering the realm of cannabis education, the Excelsior College Graduate Certificate in Cannabis Control makes an important distinction with a regulatory-focused curriculum.

In this Q&A, we hear from Excelsior College’s Gretchen Schmidt about why interdisciplinary courses are central to the graduate certificate. As program director, Gretchen — who is also the faculty program director for Excelsior’s associate, bachelor’s, and master’s in criminal justice programs — coordinates with industry representatives to ensure that students in the program come out with valuable cannabis industry knowledge and experience. The interview also covers how Excelsior’s program continues to monitor the cannabis industry’s needs and trends, educators’ strategies for preparing students for actual cannabis industry work, and more!


Ganjapreneur: Why did Excelsior College create the three-course cannabis control graduate program? What made you focus on a regulatory-centered curriculum rather than focusing on plant-touching fields?

Gretchen Schmidt: The three course, nine-credit graduate certificate emerged as an outgrowth of the college’s larger strategy to develop an academic ecosystem that was able to respond quickly to emerging markets.

We saw a lot of research pointing to the rapid expansion of legal cannabis into a $73 billion industry by 2025, with corresponding growth in employment opportunities. And despite the rapid growth of the market, colleges and universities seemed relatively slow to respond. And even when education did exist, it was focused narrowly on the agricultural or plant touching fields, and was often provided as part of non-credit curriculum or by unaccredited organizations.

Our focus on a regulatory-centered curriculum emerged from conversations with experts and leaders in the field, who have since become our industry advisors. They continue to note the importance of compliance and the complexity of the regulatory space, given the illegality at the federal level and the wide variations of regulatory environments across states. And according to these industry experts, success in the industry was and remains contingent upon a deep understanding of the regulatory environment.

What challenges did you face in building interdisciplinary courses that combine business, criminal justice, public policy, and public health?

The fascinating part of this industry is that it lies at the intersection of many issues that society faces today. That includes issues of social equity, environmental sustainability, relationships between communities and policing, public financing amidst waning federal and state revenues, an opioid crisis, and more.

The challenge with any interdisciplinary approach is that each discipline approaches issues using a different lens and has different frameworks to understand problems. They often have different assumptions and values that underlie their approaches too. This is no different in the legal cannabis sector, where the government approaches the sector differently than health professionals which differs from business and criminal justice and so on. We see our job as educators as bringing people together from across these disciplines and sectors to examine regulatory environments, and by doing so facilitating conversations about what regulations can be developed to maximize outcomes for all stakeholders. And as an online institution with students all over the country, our students are learning beside not only multiple disciplines but also multiple states, the outcome is the benefit of learning how other jurisdictions are approaching regulations and policies.

How were members of the Cannabis Industrial Advisory Committee (CBC-IAC) chosen? What role do they play in informing curriculum and areas of focus in the program?

We started with a strategy for board recruitment and developed a board committee membership profile that ensured we had diversity across different attributes including sector representation, geography, areas of expertise from regulation to operations, how well their perspectives aligned with approach of the program, and their own leadership styles and qualities. We spent about nine months having conversations with industry experts and leaders and used the profile to narrow the list of individuals to join. The committee provides input and feedback into our curriculum development by helping us align our curriculum with the needs of the market in this rapidly evolving sector. They are also helping us identify and develop experiential learning opportunities within and alongside our courses. Finally, they are strategic partners who help us identify new markets and target audiences, and they help connect us with other professionals and leaders in the field through various networking opportunities.

How long do members of the Cannabis Industrial Advisory Committee (CBC-IAC) hold their position? Will the committee continue to grow with the program by adding new members or bringing on new members with varying expertise?

The Cannabis Control Certificate Industrial Advisory Committee (CBC-IAC) will review and advise Excelsior College on the currency and industry relevancy of the Graduate Certificate in Cannabis Control and its corresponding concentrations. At minimum the CBC-IAC will consist of a diverse group of six industry members who are representative of varying perspectives (public health, advocacy, business, criminal justice, etc.) regarding regulation of legalized cannabis. The CBC-IACs report to the Dean(s) and meet periodically with the Faculty Program Directors of the School of Graduate Studies and the appropriate Faculty members, either in person or via teleconference or other distance means of communication. The CBC-IAC’s purpose is to provide perspectives from business operators, regulators, and the industry as a whole, as well as market expertise related to the program curriculum and key initiatives undertaken by the school to support the Cannabis Control programs. The Committee’s input is a vital means of focusing academic efforts in a manner that aligns with the needs and expectations of the legal cannabis industry and its regulatory environment. The CBC-IAC offers advice on and tracks the progress of, curriculum improvements, student outcomes, strategic objectives, and initiatives. The CBC-IAC will also provide introductions to other relevant members of the sector, and will assist in building the school’s standing and reputation as a thought leader in the field, which may include input on our marketing strategy and support for the development of marketing content in the form of blogs or other social media. In addition, the CBC-IAC will provide input and support in matters such as identifying emerging employment opportunities and advising on career pathways for graduates.

How long do members of the Cannabis Industrial Advisory Committee (CBC-IAC) hold their position? Will the committee continue to grow with the program by adding new members or bringing on new members with varying expertise?

The Cannabis Control Certificate Industrial Advisory Committee (CBC-IAC) will review and advise Excelsior College on the currency and industry relevancy of the Graduate Certificate in Cannabis Control and its corresponding concentrations. At minimum the CBC-IAC will consist of a diverse group of six industry members who are representative of varying perspectives (public health, advocacy, business, criminal justice, etc.) regarding regulation of legalized cannabis. The CBC-IACs report to the Dean(s) and meet periodically with the Faculty Program Directors of the School of Graduate Studies and the appropriate Faculty members, either in person or via teleconference or other distance means of communication. The CBC-IAC’s purpose is to provide perspectives from business operators, regulators, and the industry as a whole, as well as market expertise related to the program curriculum and key initiatives undertaken by the school to support the Cannabis Control programs. The Committee’s input is a vital means of focusing academic efforts in a manner that aligns with the needs and expectations of the legal cannabis industry and its regulatory environment. The CBC-IAC offers advice on and tracks the progress of, curriculum improvements, student outcomes, strategic objectives, and initiatives. The CBC-IAC will also provide introductions to other relevant members of the sector, and will assist in building the school’s standing and reputation as a thought leader in the field, which may include input on our marketing strategy and support for the development of marketing content in the form of blogs or other social media. In addition, the CBC-IAC will provide input and support in matters such as identifying emerging employment opportunities and advising on career pathways for graduates.

Appointed by the Dean to one-year terms, with opportunity to renew for up to three years. Committee members elect a chair each year at the July meeting, and is eligible to serve for up to two years

What research did you do to identify the main themes of compliance, commerce regulation, and risk assessment that are covered in the Cannabis Control program?

Through environmental scanning and interviewing many experts, the three themes that kept coming up as areas where more education was needed were: compliance, transportation/tax/banking and supply chain in general, and the risks associated with operating within this space from plant-touching entities to ancillary businesses. Social equity was also a reoccurring theme that came up so frequently that it covered in all three courses. The themes identified also cut across all aspects of the industry and apply to all of the graduate program’s disciplines. Since the program is interdisciplinary there is an opportunity for the students to gain additional perspectives as they relate to the different themes in the three courses.

As many states still grapple with addressing social equity in their adult-use cannabis programs, what approach does Excelsior take in educating students on the inclusion of social equity in the cannabis industry?

Social equity is a central theme in discussions in all of the courses. This industry is currently producing billions of dollars in revenue while people are still sitting in jail for something that is now legal in 33 states. It is also important to recognize that the communities hardest hit by the illegality of cannabis need rebuilding. An important aspect of this rebuilding is education, it’s not enough to give those disproportionately harmed by the war on drugs priority access to licenses. They also need capital and education to make the most of these opportunities. The students in the program create a social equity program for the area that they are exploring. For example a student who is an accountant and interested in offering tax services to cannabis business created a social equity program that brought together a group of professionals: accountants, lawyers, and bankers to assist equity applicants in creating a viable business plan and arm them with the education and the tools they to succeed in the cannabis business.

Does Excelsior take any steps to address social equity within the own program by offering scholarships or incentives to those disproportionately affected by the war on drugs or those formerly incarcerated for cannabis crimes?

Excelsior College is exploring pathways for scholarships for equity candidates through partnerships and the industrial advisory. There is a subgroup of the industrial advisory board that is working on this project currently and determining the best way to raise the capital for the scholarships and how to establish criteria for award to the applicants to meet the true goals of educating and creating opportunities for those that have been disproportionately harmed by the war on drugs.

Are these courses offered to students pursuing related full graduate degrees, or do students have to take part in the program to access them?

Yes, part of our academic system is developing multiple pathways for students to earn credit and credentials, which includes mapping our certificates into degree programs. So really there are three avenues that students can take to get access to these courses: 1) they can enroll in the 9-credit certificate program; 2) they can take these courses as electives within their master’s degree; and 3) they can enroll in the Cannabis Control concentration in one of the following degrees: Master of Business Administration, Master of Science in Criminal Justice; Master of Science in Health Sciences, or a Master of Public Administration.

Excelsior just celebrated the first graduating class from the Cannabis Control program. Have you had feedback from students who have completed the program?

Overall, the student feedback has been really positive. They love learning from each other about the different ways different states approach cannabis. Students also really love seeing the variety of ways they can work in the industry in ancillary businesses like accountants, as growers, or operators, or in dispensaries.

We have student testimonials from our two most recent graduates. One student noted how “the program…prepared [them] to be able to review and deliver specific information regarding individual state’s cannabis regulations… [and that it] highlighted the skills necessary to be successful while navigating in the cannabis industry from a business perspective, from a regulatory perspective, and as a consumer.” He also noted that “with this certificate, [he is] looking to join the cannabis industry by applying for potential oversight positions … for adult-use.” Or by using what he learned in the program “such skills to aid emerging businesses with compliance.” His background is in Communication and Public Relations and can see himself utilizing those skills working for a cannabis PR firm.

Another student stated that he believes that the Excelsior graduate certificate program will help him enter the cannabis industry in several ways. “The content delivered was centered around the issues valued by those that are already influential within the industry. I am more enlightened about the need for social equity and how critical it is to comprehend the complex cannabis regulations state-by-state. Understanding the impact that these regulations have on an operator will help me add value to a cannabis organization. The opportunity to network with other future cannabis professionals and our industry expert professors was also valuable to me.”

How does the program prepare students to work in the cannabis industry? Who are the ideal candidates to enroll?

The courses have the students researching the regulations in their jurisdiction as they relate to the area of the industry that they want to work in. For example, in one course we had a student in GA exploring an accounting business in cannabis, alongside a student from NY exploring farming cannabis, while another student in NV was exploring hospitality in the shape of a movie lounge for cannabis users. The industry reaches all aspects of a capitalistic society so the options are really limitless. By sharing their research with each other they have the added benefit of learning multiple aspects and seeing multiple jurisdictions. Students work on projects in the courses that expand their knowledge of the industry like course wiki’s as well and teach them the tools of the trade and the skills that employers are looking for like how to write and train on SOP’s, how to write a winning community plan, prepare and respond to public comments, and create task forces to evaluate complexities in cannabis as commerce.

We see students fitting into four different mid-career professions in the following areas, first, Cannabis industry operators, which include: Compliance and regulatory jobs, all operators seed to sale need to understand compliance, and Entrepreneurs looking to enter the market.

Next, we see professionals who serve the cannabis sector seeking to specialize, such as accounts, banker, supply chain, operators, manufacturers, marketers, lawyers, social workers, security officer/law enforcement, and investors. Third are professionals who use cannabis as a treatment option, like health coaches, wellness, quality of life enhancers, and the medical profession. Finally, public sector professionals—states with some level of legalization or seeking/considering legalization or advocating for legalization at all levels: federal, state, city/municipal, and enforcement.

Do you provide support or networking groups to program graduates that would help them find industry employment opportunities after graduating?

Absolutely. Students create networks within their courses with their peers and are encouraged to join and participate in cannabis-related local and state-level organizations to increase their network. Students in the courses are in courses being facilitated by professionals in the industry who share their network and assist students in making connections that will help them in the industry. We also use our industrial advisory members to create experiential learning opportunities for our students. Finally, we have a career development office that has resources to help connect students with career opportunities and coaching.

How do you foresee federal legalization influencing the intersection of cannabis and higher education?

Federal legalization will open more doors of opportunity for higher ed. With regulation comes education and compliance. As the country moves toward federal legalization the stigma around the plant will dissipate and more higher education opportunities will present themselves. Everyone from police to accountants to tour agencies will need to be educated on cannabis, the plant, the history, and the regulatory landscape.


Thank you, Gretchen, for answering our questions! Click here to learn more about the Excelsior College Graduate Certificate in Cannabis Control.

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