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Get with the program: Northeast Ohio cannabis education efforts prepare region for adult-use market

Shameka Beach, a student at the Cleveland School of Cannabis, stands for a photo inside the accredited career institution in Independence, Ohio. Further study into holistic remedies and herbalism, combined with ongoing adult-use activism in Ohio, spurred Beach to learn the business side of cannabis.
Ryan Loew
Ideastream Public Media
Shameka Beach, a student at the Cleveland School of Cannabis, stands for a photo inside the accredited career institution in Independence, Ohio. Further study into holistic remedies and herbalism, combined with ongoing adult-use activism in Ohio, spurred Beach to learn the business side of cannabis.

Shameka Beach learned the therapeutic benefits of cannabis as a teenager, when her mother used the drug to relieve the agonizing muscle spasms that literally left her screaming. Beach said her mom’s reprieve from pain showed her that marijuana was far more than a party drug.

“I saw how it helped her - it helped so much that she ended up not having muscle spasms anymore,” Beach said. “That’s when I saw the beneficial effects of the plant and how it could help people.”

Further study into holistic remedies and herbalism - combined with ongoing adult-use activism in Ohio - spurred Beach to learn the business side of cannabis at the Cleveland School of Cannabis in Independence, an accredited career institution for marijuana employees.

“At first I was like, I don’t know — the West Coast has been in the industry longer, so maybe I should go there,” said Beach. “But (CSC) had mock dispensaries and mock grow rooms. It was a world much bigger than what I even realized when it came to cannabis.”

With the passage of Issue 2, Ohio will need scores of people, like Beach, to fill jobs in the industry. Marijuana is an explosive job creator in other states – from areas like cultivation to patient consultants, said CSC education director Nicole Fenix.

“We have 132 dispensaries in the medical cannabis arena, and that’s going to double with adult use, because most companies will apply for dual licensing,” said Fenix.

Companies that add recreational licenses to their existing medical certification will double Ohio’s cannabis workforce. CSC, billed as the only certified cannabis education institution in the Midwest, offers science classes on the medical applications of cannabis, along with a marketing curriculum that teaches the finer points of product branding.

“(Employees) go to a dispensary and hold what’s called an education day,” said Fenix, whose school has been preparing students for the job force since 2017. “They know your products, or what creates that niche, and they’re educating the consumer that comes into the dispensary. That’s been an interesting thing to watch in the last three or four years.”

When she graduates with accreditation from CSC in June, Beach hopes to join a medical dispensary as a “bud tender” — in industry nomenclature a person who assists customers in purchasing cannabis products.

“I want to learn from the bottom-up, because I think people are more effective at the top if they know what the bottom is like,” said Beach.

Don’t misunderstand

Business, healthcare, compliance and agriculture are the focal points of a new cannabis certificate collaboration between Kent State University and Green Flower, a California curriculum creator and industry bootcamp. The foursome of credentials aims to prepare students for an Ohio marketplace that grew by 24% last year and created more than 1,300 jobs, according to the Vangst 2023 Jobs Report. And that’s before recreational marijuana has even started.

The fully online program, which costs $2,950 per certificate, imparts fundamental agricultural principles such as seed selection, nutrient management and proper soil composition. Additional courses concentrate on consumer behavior, along with the industry’s complex legal and regulatory landscape. Product development and design, meanwhile, reveals formulations behind tinctures, topicals and other dispensary offerings, said Max Simon, Green Flower co-founder and chief executive officer.

“Then there’s the retail layer, where the most jobs are,” Simon said. “Within that landscape, there are a whole plethora of different jobs, from people that are buying cannabis and curating the menus, to supply chain management to retail operations and marketing.”

Students who complete the KSU program receive a digital certificate as well as access to career events and new job postings. The curriculum — now offered at 26 colleges and universities nationwide — was developed, in part, to erase the stigma that still surrounds the marketplace, said Simon.

“Cannabis is so heavily misunderstood that most people actually don’t know much about it,” he said. “They don’t understand the reality of how these things work. So at Green Flower, we have programs that cover the different industry sectors depending on where people want to play.”

Simon said those in the media occasionally trivialize what Green Flower does by making a “weed” joke when reporting about the company. But, he said, the public must be informed about the skills needed to cultivate a cannabis plant – expertise that encompasses genetics, lighting, watering cycles and more.

“Someone needs to learn those skills – they need to understand the nuances of cannabis, and ultimately that’s why I think these programs are so valuable,” said Simon.

The KSU program, now in its second iteration, has attracted about 80 students, said Eric Mansfield, assistant vice president of communications at the university.

“It’s not our intent to be pro or con on cannabis, but to meet the needs of the workforce,” Mansfield said. “Ohio spoke at the ballot, so we want to prepare the cannabis workforce as we do journalists, teachers and scientists. This (Green Flower) program is the best way we can help right now.

Taking the industry seriously

There are few cannabis education programs in the Buckeye State, said Fenix, of CSC. The University of Toledo has an online-only cannabis management certificate available through its college of pharmacy, while Ohio State University’s cannabis law courses examine criminal and civil policies.

Any new marijuana programming should be focused on proper accreditation, Fenix said.

“We’re certified by the Ohio State Board of Career Colleges and Schools, so we have to follow a strict curriculum – it’s really important that these other cannabis educations are accredited in one way or another,” said Fenix. “We’re recognized by the U.S. Department of Education, too, so we’ve done our due diligence in making sure our curriculum aligns with true academic coursework.”

Shangri-La Dispensary, a Missouri-based medical cannabis company that opened a storefront in Cleveland’s St. Clair-Superior neighborhood late last year, is now preparing for company-wide growth, said regional manager Amber Miller.

“There’s going to be a need for skilled professionals in retail, compliance, product development and marketing,” said Miller. “Our cultivation facilities will require workers with expertise in horticulture and plant science. From the retail operations side, we’re going to need knowledgeable bud tenders, and people who excel at customer service. Educating consumers about products is a lot of this industry.”

Shameka Beach sits for a photo inside a classroom at the Cleveland School of Cannabis in Independence, Ohio.
Ryan Loew
Ideastream Public Media
Shameka Beach sits for a photo inside a classroom at the Cleveland School of Cannabis in Independence, Ohio.

Colleges seeking the latest trends are wise to connect with industry leaders who can even shape curriculum, said Miller, a marketing veteran on the dispensary side.

“Businesses like Shangri-La want to be involved in the development process by providing input on industry trends and bridging the gap between education and opportunity,” Miller said. “We want to find ways to participate in our community and foster partnerships with educational institutions.”

Although Green Flower is not currently in talks with other Ohio schools, Simon said he is energized by the prospect of future collaborations.

“There’s a trust that exists within higher education,” said Simon. “Having institutions like KSU offer a cannabis education sends a loud signal that this industry is legitimate, respected and something to be taken seriously.”

Beach, the CSC student, has been answering questions from friends and relatives about a nascent industry many still consider to be illegitimate. Still, Beach said she is happy to advocate for something that saved her mother from so much pain.

“I’m just passing on the knowledge of what I’ve learned, and showing people that marijuana is not what they think,” said Beach. “It is so much more.”

Douglas J. Guth is a freelance journalist based in Cleveland Heights. His focus is on business, with bylines in publications including Crain's Cleveland Business and Middle Market Growth.