marijuana nugs
Dave Warden, a bud tender at Private Organic Therapy (P.O.T.), a nonprofit cooperative medical marijuana dispensary, displays various types of marijuana available to patients. David McNew/Getty Images

HEMPSTEAD, New York -- As 24 second- and third-year law students at Hofstra’s Maurice A. Dean School of Law settled into their seats on a Tuesday evening, laptop screens flickered to life and quickly filled with court documents, news articles, and on more than one computer, the odd image of a marijuana bud or a rolled joint.

The subject matter wasn’t the product of distraction, but research for another session of “The Business and Law of Marijuana,” the school’s first class focused on dissecting the tricky legal and policy issues related to legalized cannabis.

Long associated with college life, marijuana is typically thought of as more of an extracurricular activity than a classroom subject. But as the wave of decriminalization and legalization continues to sweep across the U.S., courses like this one are becoming more and more common, as university students hope to make their mark in the emerging industry.

Class started with current events: an Alaska senate bill about open container laws, a landmark case in Connecticut about possible amnesty for people convicted of marijuana possession before certain amounts were decriminalized, President Barack Obama’s latest statements on the future of legal weed in the U.S., and one particularly tricky bit of news.

“This will undermine everything we’ve talked about this entire year,” Marc Ross, the professor, said as he handed out copies of a recent Associated Press article from earlier in the month, detailing the legal fate of the Kettle Falls Five, three of whom were recently found guilty of growing marijuana, despite the fact that it happened in Washington state, where marijuana is currently legal for medical and recreational use.

“Have you guys figured it out yet?” he asked, waiting for the class to finish reading.

“Nope,” one of the bolder students ventured, before Ross helped them break down the many legal and policy issues involved in the case.

Though unusual for a third-year law school class, there were many times throughout the two-hour session that students didn’t know the answer -- and that was OK. Ross explained that the scope of marijuana rules and business regulations is so complex that even professionals like him are scrambling to keep track.

“This whole class is unanswered questions,” says student Michael Bernstein, 25, currently in his third year of law school at Hofstra. “And that’s one of the coolest parts about it.”

And students at Hofstra aren’t alone. At Anne Arundel Community College in Arnold, Maryland, students can attend “Business Opportunities Related to Marijuana Legalization.” Meanwhile, more focused institutions such as Oaksterdam University in Oakland, California, offer classes in everything from horticulture to legal rights to business structures.

“Something that is very interesting to me is thinking about how many areas of the law that marijuana legalization touches,” says Madalyn McElwain, 27, who is currently taking what she calls her “dream class” -- University of Denver’s “Representing the Marijuana Client.”

She explained that marijuana law is so interesting because it involves everything from real estate, corporate representation and contracts to employment matters, family law and water rights. But her motivation is more than just the legal issues. McElwain’s mother was a victim of cancer, and it wasn’t until after she died that McElwain learned about the possibility of alternative treatments.

“Once I started learning the potential cannabis has as a medicine, and the sorry history of its prohibition, I knew right away that I wanted to be involved in educating people,” says McElwain, who is also Director of University of Denver Law Students for Sensible Drug Policy.

She has already accepted a job offer as an associate attorney, and her soon-to-be-employer plans to allow her to build her own marijuana law practice to represent private marijuana businesses and individuals in the industry.

“Luckily I was in the right place at the right time,” she says.

Over the past few years the legal marijuana business has grown significantly. Medical use is legal in 23 states and the district of Columbia while four states plus D.C. have legalized recreational use. Last year Colorado alone raised $15 million in tax revenue from recreational sales.

The boom has attracted the attention of some of the country’s top investors like noted venture capitalist Peter Thiel, who co-founded PayPal and is a major Facebook backer. Thiel has invested millions in Privateer Holdings, one of the prominent private equity firms focusing on legal marijuana. Celebrity names such as Bob Marley and Snoop Dogg are making their way into the legitimate industry, and startups such as Leafline Labs and Four Twenty Investments are also raising substantial amounts of money. Even industrial hemp farmers have high hopes for the next few years.

“Now that marijuana laws are changing and a legal industry is emerging, there is a growing need for experts on those subjects,” says Mason Tvert, spokesperson for the Marijuana Policy Project. Though he added that the concept isn’t especially new, and that there are a handful of highly talented attorneys already hard at work in the industry. “Fortunately there is a large pool of experts from whom they can learn,” he added.

Ross is one of them. A partner at New York City law firm Sichenzia Ross Friedman Ference, he’s become an authority on marijuana legalization debates and legal issues, advising companies and policymakers around the country. He’s also teaching the class at Hofstra.

“These kids get that this is the future,” Ross says. But not everyone was as quick to hop onboard.

Initially, “it was controversial,” he says of the class. “People didn’t want to be the ‘pot school.’” But after he pitched the idea of a class focused on “Cannabis, Inc.,” the dean was on board and even attended a session himself. Now, it’s booked solid, with a 50-person waiting list and strong attendance.

This week, students were hard at work forming hypothetical marijuana businesses. Some suggest cooking classes, others debating the licensing required for a pot-infused yoga studio or a company that delivers cannabis directly to customers using an online platform.

Students talked about the benefits of being based in Colorado or California, why it might be better to be a corporation than a partnership or sole proprietor, and the civil and criminal liabilities that might come with growing, distributing and making money off of marijuana -- which is still illegal at the federal level, and a Schedule I substance, a category that also includes heroin and ecstasy, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.

For Bernstein, who has less than two months before graduating, this kind of class is a great way to finish his higher education. Though he has all his required credits, he still enrolled in Ross’ class. “I feel like there’s not another opportunity to take a class like this,” he said, adding that some of his law school colleagues and friends were a bit surprised to hear about his choice.

“They look at me like I’m crazy,” he says. “But to laugh off the fact that I’m taking a marijuana class now is, in my opinion, a little short-sighted.”