Minnesota’s new cannabis classes drawing a different kind of student

Husky Plaza on the campus of St. Cloud State University
St. Cloud State University is one of three public Minnesota schools offering the course “The Business of Cannabis.”
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News 2023

Dr. John Allen is a retired gastroenterologist with a decades-long Twin Cities practice who served key roles in the medical schools of Yale University and the University of Michigan. It’s not necessarily a career arc that would point to cannabis classes as his next professional step.

The 72-year-old, though, recently completed the course, “Cannabis Healthcare and Medicine” through St. Cloud State University and is enrolled now in “The Business of Cannabis” at St. Cloud, one of three public schools offering the courses.

“This is a totally different world. I didn’t know any of this,” he said of the rapidly expanding industry. “When I started this process, I didn't know the barriers. I certainly didn’t know the politics of how we’ve discriminated against populations using marijuana laws.”

A man poses for a photo in his home office
Dr. John Allen poses in his Bloomington home office on April 3.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Allen is among 288 students enrolled in the cannabis courses at St. Cloud, one of about 500 students in Minnesota learning a lot of new things about the flowering green plant as Minnesota’s move last year to legalize cannabis cultivates a new market for education.

Three public colleges in the state offer noncredit classes now. School representatives say they are seeing people from different lived experiences signing up — retirees, job seekers, career changers, employed persons and college students. Some see a chance to take their lives in a new direction and perhaps satisfy their inner entrepreneur.

For the schools and the students, it’s a bet on a future market where the state is still working to set the rules.

‘I was curious’

Kimberly Erickson, 59, was general manager of a flower shop in Minneapolis for 18 years. She started a cannabis agriculture and horticulture course at St. Cloud last August. Her brother had money to invest in a growing business and wanted her help.

She learned through the course, though, that he would need 10 times the funds just to start a small greenhouse operation. He nixed the idea upon hearing that.

Her world shifted in December when the owner of the flower shop she managed sold the business. Erickson received her course certificate in late February and is enrolled in two courses now. She wants to land a job in the industry.

“It was perfect for me, it was perfect for what I was looking for, as far as learning about the plant, learning about how it grows, learning the different special circumstances that it needs and learning about what it takes to open a commercial greenhouse operation,” she said, referring to the first class.

“I don’t smoke cannabis. I don’t smoke. I’ve never really participated ... but I was curious,” she added.

Erickson said she’s not sure where the classes will take her, “but I’m learning so much and so much about an industry that is, you know, so new and so wide open to possibilities.”

Close-up of a computer screen
Dr. John Allen, a retired gastroenterologist, navigates the website for his cannabis education course through St. Cloud State University in his Bloomington home office on April 3.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Besides St. Cloud State, classes are being taught at St. Paul College and at Minnesota State Community and Technical College campuses in northwestern Minnesota. They offer workforce training programs classes such as certifications in cannabis retail, cannabis cultivation, cannabis extraction and product development.

Classes at the two-year schools last nine weeks and cost $750 each. St. Cloud’s courses are broader in scope and take six months to complete. Those classes cost $2,700 each.

The schools have partnered with Green Flower, an cannabis education platform. The Ventura, Calif., company, founded in 2014 when California legalized pot for recreational use, has developed training programs specific to the industry for individuals and businesses.

Man in suit smiles
Daniel Kalef, the chief growth officer for Green Flower.
Courtesy Green Flower

Daniel Kalef, the company’s chief growth officer, said Green Flower partners with 27 universities and 23 community colleges across the country. In the last four years, about 6,000 people have gone through their programs. The company says it doesn’t advocate for marijuana use, it just wants to educate about the plant.

“We know that for the industry to succeed, for the industry to continue to grow and continue to add to the tax base of states,” Kalef said. “All those things require education.”

Adam Hoffman, 24, enrolled in the cannabis retail course in February at St. Paul College. He’s the owner of Sweet Leaves, a cannabis dispensary set to open in the North Loop next month. He said he wants his business to employ “the highest educated staff members” due to what he sees as misinformation about the plant.

“I thought this course would be a great way for me to learn, but also to implement that into our training cycles for our employees,” he said, noting the class covers everything from seeds to sales.

“It’s really important for people to know when they’re buying cannabis — or for my sake, employees selling cannabis — to know where it came from, where it derived from and how it was manufactured,” he said.

‘A lot of new things’

Kalef said the company partnered with colleges and universities to offset some growing pains in the industry such as high turnover in businesses and insufficient training, adding that the partnership creates credibility.

“So when a person sees that St. Cloud State or St. Paul College are offering cannabis programs then they realized that probably nothing happens at those colleges without really great vetting, understanding, research, etc., which is the case,” he said, ”So that it’s trusted, and people know that the industry is for real and it’s not just some fly-by-night kind of thing.”

After Green Flower partnered with St. Cloud State last summer, Minnesota State Community and Technical College and St. Paul College called them up with interest. Two-year and four-year schools in the Minnesota State system struggled with a decade of enrollment declines before counts started to recover this year, so the potential for a new market for students was intriguing.

M State has 68 students enrolled in its cannabis course program, according to the university. St. Paul College officials say they have signed up 147 students in the last three months.

Abram Hedtke, executive director of St. Cloud State’s professional and continuing education division, said the school has 288 enrolled students, about 40 percent more than its original goal.

“So we’re just doing some amazing, you know, we’re seeing amazing numbers, amazing interest,” he said.

The most popular class is Agriculture and Horticulture. It explores the genetics of the plant and its impact on the body and agriculture, Hedtke explained.

Other classes touch on compliance and risk management, business of cannabis, health care and medicine and product development. Each is a six-month non-credit course, costing $2,700.

He encourages prospective students to take one course at a time, at least initially.

“That way you can kind of get a sense of as a learner, how do I do this, in addition to whatever else I have going on in life,” he said. 

St. Cloud State University campus seen
Abram Hedtke, executive director of St. Cloud State’s professional and continuing education division, said the school has 288 enrolled students, about 40 percent more than its original goal.
Paul Middlestaedt for MPR News

St. Cloud is also able to offer monthly payment plans to students, but no federal financial aid is available because the courses are noncredit. The university has started internal conversations about creating a for-credit operation.

St. Paul College and M State offer a trio of nine-week course topics, also non-credit, costing $750 each: Cannabis Extraction and Product Development, Cannabis Cultivation and Cannabis Retail.

M State will run a $200 off promotion for courses beginning April 15 and ending on April 20, aka 4/20, a day typically associated with marijuana. M State will have open registrations for cannabis courses every other month beginning May 1.

The schools declined to publicly share details of their contracts with Green Flower. Craig Beytien, vice president of strategic engagement at M State, only said it was a revenue share, but not 50-50. Green Flower gets more of the share.

Hedtke said St. Cloud students are interested in a cannabis degree program, according to feedback the university has received. School officials have formed a task force and are discussing it.

“We’re exploring, we’re having conversations with faculty and connected departments to see what is possible, what do we want to do?” he said. St. Cloud has also reached out to other universities who have taken that step. 

In the meantime, St. Cloud will be offering workforce specialization programs beginning in May or June. These are the same three classes offered by St. Paul and M State. 

A man works on a Mac desktop computer
Dr. John Allen, a retired gastroenterologist, navigates the website for his cannabis education course through St. Cloud State University in his Bloomington home office on April 3.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Allen, the retired gastroenterologist, still stays active in the gastroenterology field. He serves as an executive officer with the American Gastroenterological Association and is a consultant for the group. He began serving on Bloomington’s health advisory board in March. He says he hopes to shape public policy on cannabis, thanks to his coursework and research on the plant. 

Allen said his wife Carolyn is the one who suggested he take the course after hearing about St. Cloud State’s classes on a morning news show.

“I didn’t know a whole lot about it, but I did know that probably 30 percent of people with digestive disorders, either are interested in it, or have used it or are currently using it,” he said. “So I figured I should learn about it. Really just for fun, but also because it’s such an up-and-coming industry that there are opportunities to help kind of shape policy.”

Allen signed up the next day after hearing of the classes. He now sits on the city of Bloomington’s advisory health board, which has identified cannabis as a top health issue.

Among the things he’s learned, Allen said he has a firmer grasp now of the history of the cannabis industry in the United States since the 1930s.

“You can look at it from a political standpoint, from the biologic and physiologic standpoint, from a therapeutic standpoint, from a business standpoint,” Allen said. “You just get to learn a lot of new things.”

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