Marijuana 101: How Michigan colleges work around federal ban to teach pot

“At this rate, we’re having trouble graduating students fast enough. Students are being hired pre-graduation, which doesn’t happen in chemistry very often,” said Benjamin Southwell, a chemistry professor at Lake Superior State University.

Students like Jacie Duranso are in hot demand. She graduated from Northern’s medicinal plant chemistry program in 2020 and is now the director of licensing and compliance for Fire Station, an Upper Peninsula dispensary. Similar jobs pay $80,000.

Duranso started as a receptionist at the company, owned by Stosh Wasik and Logan Stauber, but quickly moved up because of her knowledge of cannabis.

“We’re extremely proud of what she was able to accomplish and what she was able to do in such a little time,” Wasik said. “There’s so much room for opportunity in this industry to be able to move up in these companies.”

Michigan is at the forefront

While Michigan is considered a leader in marijuana education, research in the drug lags because of the federal prohibition, said Andrew Brisbo, executive director of the Michigan Cannabis Regulatory Agency, a state agency.

The US Federal Drug Administration has to approve any university research of marijuana, a cumbersome process that involves a host of regulations and monitoring. The application process takes years, Brisbo said.

Among other things, universities have to procure marijuana sanctioned by the federal government — which is grown at the University of Mississippi — and house the drug off-campus in secure, locked locations that are monitored by security guards. It’s so costly that most universities don’t bother, Birsbo said.

The only Michigan university approved to use marijuana is Wayne State, which doesn’t offer classes in cannabis, but was awarded a $7 million state grant in 2021 to investigate the therapeutic use of marijuana for veterans.

To ease the process, Michigan cannabis regulators this year created a license that would allow universities to handle and research marijuana if the US government legalizes the drug or reclassifies it as a lesser narcotic.

Marijuana is legal for medical use in 37 states and recreational use in 18, but the prospects of national legalization are murky.

The US House in April voted to remove marijuana from the list of scheduled substances, end criminal penalties for it and eventually impose 8 percent taxes. , but the bill is seen as a nonstarter in the US Senate.

Brisbo said he believes national legalization is inevitable, however, and it’s important for Michigan universities to be ready to “grow marijuana on campus, have access to production markets, run tests and do other hands-on, real word activities.”

The state’s new license would also allow universities to partner with marijuana businesses to refine the product and develop a standard method for safety compliance when the federal ban ends.

“Partnerships could also present different product development opportunities from a business side as well as a scientific side,” Brisbo said.

Industry leaders from Lume Cannabis Co. and Pure Options who spoke at Northern Michigan’s cannabis conference said establishing relationships with universities has been difficult and when they do propose partnerships, they are often turned down.

“If universities were able to partner with cannabis companies, the number of people getting jobs would be exponential,” said Stauber, co-owner of the Fire Station dispensary that employs Duranso.

“They would learn a lot from the experience they would get because they could, just like any other industry, be interning and receiving credit while they’re in school.”

Stauber’s company has a partial relationship with Northern Michigan University, it sponsored its recent educational cannabis conference, but he does not expect a full partnership until the plant is federally legalized.

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