Marijuana degree combines science and business at Northern Michigan University

Alex Roth

Alex Roth, 19, a sophomore at Northern Michigan University from Marquette, is working towards a medicinal plant chemistry degree with hopes of going into the medical marijuana business.(Photo: Alex Roth)

Alex Roth has gotten into the habit of pulling out his cell phone and showing skeptical friends a screen shot of the classes he’ll have to take to get his bachelor of science degree from Northern Michigan University.

“When they hear what my major is, there are a lot of people who say, ‘Wow, cool dude. You’re going to get a degree growing marijuana,’” said the 19-year-old sophomore at Northern Michigan in Marquette. “But it’s not an easy degree at all.”

His four-year medicinal plant chemistry degree — geared toward the burgeoning marijuana business that is about to explode in Michigan next year — includes classes such as organic chemistry, biochemistry, soils, biology, gas and liquid chromatography, biostatistics, genetics, accounting, financial management and perspectives on society.

Other colleges and universities — such as Harvard, University of Denver, Vanderbilt University and Ohio State University — that offer a variety of classes on marijuana policy and law.

And there are programs that offer marijuana certificates in a variety of disciplines at places such as Oaksterdam University, Cannabis College, and Humboldt Cannabis College, all in California; and THC University, the Grow School and Clover Leaf University in Denver.

But the NMU program is unique, mixing chemistry, biology, botany, horticulture, marketing and finance in a four-year program that began this semester. The first class has a dozen students, but Dr. Mark Paulsen, director of the university’s chemistry department, expects that number to grow quickly.

“We’re gaining students every week,” he said. “With a full 12 months of recruitment, we expect that to grow.”

The idea for the program came last year when associate chemistry professor Brandon Canfield attended an American Chemical Society annual meeting in San Diego.

“It was my off day and I saw there was a cannabis chemistry group that was putting on a whole series of talks,” he said. “I heard all about the need for analytical chemists and all sorts of interesting talks. That was the initial spark.”

Eighteen months later, the program is off and running with the blessing of the NMU Board of Trustees.

“Many of the states are legalizing different substances and they’re really looking for quality people to do the chemistry and the science,” said NMU trustee James Haveman. “And it’s the university’s responsibility to produce those kinds of students for those kinds of jobs.”

Another board member, Steve Mitchell of West Bloomfield, said there wasn’t any hesitancy from the board in approving the degree program, especially after they found out that the students won’t actually be growing marijuana plants.

“No one is growing marijuana. No one is violating and state or federal laws,” he said. “But there are a lot of plants that can be studied.”

Canfield said there are plenty of ways to transfer the knowledge from growing other medicinal plants to marijuana.

“I work with plants right now that could be considered medicinal plants,” he said, citing things such as St. John’s Wort, ginseng root and mint. “We look to other plants that have been traditionally recognized with medicinal value, but are not illegal to grow.”

The students will learn how to measure and extract the compounds in the plants that can be used for medicinal purposes and then be able to transfer that knowledge to marijuana, which has been used to treat a variety of illnesses including chronic pain, nausea, seizures and glaucoma.

Roth started at NMU in 2016 with an eye toward an environmental science degree, but decided that the current political environment might not produce the type of job he wanted. When his mother, a nurse, sent him an article on NMU’s new medicinal plant program, he decided to switch his major and choose the entrepreneurial path for his degree, with the hope of breaking into the multi-million-dollar business when he graduates in 2020. His interest was ignited by two moments in his life.

A close friend has a 2-year-old daughter who was born with a rare gene mutation, which left her visually impaired, gripped by seizures and unable to walk. The family started using the non-intoxicating cannabinoid oils to treat the seizures and the child is now sleeping better, has fewer seizures and has begun strengthening her legs in a bouncing chair.

“It is a legitimate medicine and it’s helping people,” Roth said. “And that makes it more real for me.”

He also wants to help remove the stigma that is associated with marijuana use. He’s smoked marijuana recreationally and compares the “Reefer Madness” culture to how the prohibition of alcohol in the 1920s evolved into today’s reality.

“Alcohol is such a big part of our culture now and I want to be a part of the change to normalize marijuana,” he said. “And I look at how much the industry is going to be worth and I think this is one of the smartest decisions I could make for my future.”

While medical marijuana revenues in Michigan are estimated at more than $700 million, if full legalization of marijuana happens, as it has in eight other states, the revenues could be enormous. Arcview Market Research, a California-based company that tracks the marijuana industry, reported $6.8 billion nationally in legal marijuana sales — both recreational and medicinal — in 2016, and projects the market to grow to $21.6 billion by 2021.

So there is certainly going to be a need for chemists, agriculture experts and entrepreneurs to populate the business in Michigan and across the nation where 29 states have legalized medical marijuana, including eight states with full legalization of marijuana for recreational use. A petition drive is under way to gather the necessary 252,523 signatures to get full legalization of marijuana on Michigan’s ballot in November 2018.

Before that happens, though, Michigan will roll out regulations on the growing, testing, transportation and sale of medical marijuana in the state with applications for licenses available on Dec. 15. The state Medical Marijuana Licensing Board is expected to begin awarding licenses in five different categories — for growing, processing, testing, transporting and retail sales — in the first quarter of next year.

Just last week, the state Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs announced that it will require two levels of testing of medical marijuana and marijuana-infused products: after harvesting the plants and after the marijuana has been processed into smokable or non-smokable products. Dispensaries will only be able to sell products to registered medical marijuana card holders after it’s been tested and labeled by the state.

“Testing is going to be mandatory in all regulated cannabis markets, so that’s a segment of the industry that needs to grow,” said Barton Morris, a Royal Oak attorney and member of a state work group that is looking at testing for medical marijuana. “A fear I have with the rollout of the regulated market is that there isn’t going to be enough labs. And think about the potential of recreational adult use of marijuana. If that happens and it passes, Michigan is going to be the second-largest market for marijuana behind California.”

NMU is leaving nothing to chance. Faculty members have attended several marijuana-related conferences across the country this year looking to recruit students for their program as well as line up businesses that will want to hire Northern students as both interns and full-time employees after graduation.

“We’ve had an overwhelming response from growing operations, dispensaries and other businesses who want to take on our students as interns,” said Canfield, adding that a stereotypical stoner need not apply.

“Obviously, the program is new and different and it might speak to a certain crowd,” he said. “But for a student to succeed, they’re going to have to be very dedicated and motivated. This is not an easy program. It’s a really intense, biology chemistry program.”
Story by Kathleen Gray, Detroit Free Press Lansing Bureau