Legal marijuana's place in college education is still limited, but it's starting to pay off for some University of Denver graduates.
The university's Sturm College of Law and its media and journalism programs have offered classes centered on legal weed since 2015, with the Daniels School of Business following suit in 2017. And now, alumni are beginning to make their marks on the nation's burgeoning industry.
“I was picking classes for my last quarter and thought it looked cool,” remembers Sarah Gerson, a former student of DU's Business in Marijuana course. Gerson is currently the community manager of Cultivated Synergy, a co-working space that also hosts private cannabis-friendly parties. She met the founder, who was a speaker in the class, began emailing him, and eventually applied for a job.
Taking the course helped Gerson learn more about social consumption laws and science surrounding the plant, she says, as well as the amount of work that takes place behind the scenes of legal pot, which has helped her enlighten others' views of cannabis.
“A lot of people are biased or blind about what goes on behind the cannabis industry,” she says. “It’s not just people selling weed to each other; it’s another business sector.”
Cannabis classes have also shown students new opportunities in traditional roles for college-educated professionals, according to Matt Cooper, an alumni of DU's cannabis journalism class. Taught by professor Andrew Matranga, students of the course learn how to report on developments in the weed industry. After reading more about legal cannabis and doing some research of his own for the class, Cooper discovered that applying his skills to legal pot would be the same as in any other line of work.
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“I was really unsure of what I wanted to do after college, and I saw Andrew’s class and found it interesting,” he says. “Not only did I learn to write on something I’m passionate about, but I managed to have a background that has helped me teach people in the industry more about it.”
Cooper says that knowledge eventually opened a pathway to his job as a legal assistant for Medically Correct, a cannabis-infused products company that recently agreed to be purchased by Medicine Man Technologies in a $17.25 million deal.
Some of the new opportunities are about more than just getting a job, according to marijuana business class alum Kristen Kidd, who specializes in marketing and public relations for CBD company Vibrant Health. Surprised at the time that DU would offer a class about cannabis, Kidd says taking the course helped her learn about the country's conflicted past with cannabis and how she can assert herself in a quickly evolving industry.
“I liked the messaging around opportunities for women,” she says. “I felt like I could actually do this, and not just be known as a ‘marijuana girl.’ It helped legitimize the industry as an actual business, and not just a crazy trend or party scene.”
The university's Sturm College of Law has also seen students go on to work in cannabis. The program's professorship is sponsored by Vicente Sederberg, a Denver-based cannabis law firm that employs a long list of former DU students, including co-founder Brian Vicente.
While the cannabis journalism and law classes have held steady spots in the university course catalogues since they began, the business class was on the verge of ending when its founding professor, Paul Seaborn, left DU in the summer of 2019. But the class came back, with DU professor Bud Bilanich taking over in Seaborn's place.
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“I liked Paul’s classes, and used to sit in for him while he was teaching,” Bilanich remembers. “You have to know the certain fundamental business concepts to be successful, so I have students apply what they learn in other business courses in this course.”
Bilanich frequently invites guest speakers from the cannabis industry to speak to students, emphasizing that the “business” is the most important word in the course name.
“Business is business, even if it’s an unusual product from a regulatory standpoint and the social stigma it still has with some people,” he explains.
Editor's note: The author of this article currently attends the University of Denver and is a former student of Andrew Matranga's.