It's a university far off the radar of the Princeton Review annual college rankings, yet it boasts more than 25,000 graduates, all lured by the promise of careers in the rapidly growing cannabis industry. Through sheer force of academia, marijuana-centric Oaksterdam University in Oakland, California, is determined to foster a sense of legitimacy in a line of business that struggles with stigma.
Oaksterdam University is part of a trend of cannabis universities that have opened their doors as fast as the industry has expanded. Administrators said pot programs are necessary to legitimize the legal weed market as marijuana legalization increasingly becomes the law of the land. But the training programs vary in credibility, prompting some marijuana advocates to question whether the intention is solely to cash in on the emerging cannabis market by duping vulnerable job seekers.
"There are more and more schools popping up and opportunity breeds opportunists," said Aseem Sappal, a dean at Oaksterdam.
The universities offer a variety of courses tied to the industry -- dispensary management, medical marijuana patient relations, baking edibles -- and award students a certificate of completion. Some students are looking to break into the business and open their own dispensaries, while others are lawyers and healthcare professionals looking to bolster their careers with more knowledge about the field.
For its part, Oaksterdam may be considered in the top tier of cannabis colleges. Founded in 2007, the school's 14-week-semester coursework encompasses the entire cannabis trade, not just horticulture. Students can enroll in all of the traditional courses -- law, science and economics -- but the focus is on marijuana. Think Cannabis 101.
Classes are taught by longtime advocates of legal pot, and a handful of the 100 faculty members have helped pen landmark medical marijuana legislation in California. Oaksterdam wants to see programs such as theirs become a critical part of the state’s marijuana cultivation permit process. Sappal said the school has met with City Council members on occasion to discuss cannabis education and familiarize them with its offerings.
"When the state passes a cannabis law or an initiative, they are handing the keys to the car and there is no driver's education," Sappal said. "That can be very dangerous in essence."
Tuition starts at $1,195 for its 35-credit hour semester -- inexpensive in terms of trade schools, but a steep price to pay for a field where education is not a prerequisite. By comparison, Cannabis University in Denver promises to “change hearts and minds” at $250 for a one-day course. And the fee includes admission for a friend.
Cannabis University's seminar touches upon plant maintenance, packaging and edible recipes, as well as more advanced techniques, such as how to make tinctures, which are alcoholic extracts of cannabis. This criterion has even led one Colorado news site to hail the program as the Harvard of pot schools, which may say more about the academic landscape than the program’s rigor.
“Cannabis University is the fast track,” said Michelle LaMay, Cannabis University CEO, who teaches the seminars herself. “We don't have any tests here. We’re adults. You can answer your phone and we have a good time.”
Neither Cannabis nor Oaksterdam have pursued any form of accreditation, although the move is not unheard of among marijuana universities. Clover Leaf University, also in Denver, received accreditation in 2013 from the Colorado Department of Higher Education, but the licensing has not always boded well for schools. Greenway University in Denver, which was the first state-certified marijuana training school, closed in 2011 after it was discovered that the director had lied on the application about a 2000 felony conviction.
LaMay said she is not interested in seeking accreditation for Cannabis University from the Department of Higher Education, noting Greenway's closure. “Accreditations are designed to protect the consumer and I designed my class to provide so much information for students and never had any complaints about anyone seeking accreditation,” she said.
There are no figures that vouch for the program’s success -- LaMay does not follow up with graduates to see how many have gained employment in the marijuana industry. She said many past students have called her with news of jobs.
But even if participants in seminars such as Cannabis University found employment, that is not to say their certificates played a major role. For some employers, marijuana universities do not carry much weight in the hiring process.
With state marijuana legalization gaining momentum, the scope of jobs has expanded to meet the demands of a market that swells with each piece of cannabis legislation enacted. Almost two dozen states have passed medical marijuana laws, creating a wealth of positions that call for expertise that goes beyond an appreciation for cannabis. Career site WeedHire boasts more than 1,000 job postings, including positions for accountants and marketing directors, among other jobs not suited for the full-time stoner.
Trent Woloveck, chief operating officer of American Cannabis Company, said he looks mainly for candidates with strong skill sets honed in other industries that they could bring to the Denver consulting business -- not learned pot scholars.
“It’s not something necessarily that I’m going to look for if I’m hiring an individual,” Woloveck said. “I could care less if they have cannabis-related experience.”
Others said the programs’ curriculum does not align with their businesses. Tim Cullen, who serves as Colorado Harvest Company CEO, employs 67 employees at the Denver marijuana dispensary, a few of whom have attended cannabis certificate programs. He said he has never been approached by a marijuana school about what capabilities his business looks for or about job placement and internships.
“I sometimes feel like the skills they are teaching aren't exactly what we are looking for,” Cullen said. “The degree shows the initiative of the employee before they come to me, but it’s not really a requirement for any position.”
Cullen plans to hire 50 more employees this year, all of whom will likely be trained on the job about the cannabis industry, regardless of time spent in the classroom.
“I think it would be foolish to say that a [cannabis] degree program would be required to do one of the jobs,” Cullen said.