Cannabis cultivation: the world's only college course

After the decriminalisation of marijuana in two US states, a new crop of would-be drug barons is enrolling on a college course in cannabis cultivation

Martin Pashley
Friday 10 January 2014 01:00 GMT
Oaksterdam in Oakland, California, is the world's only university dedicated to the study and cultivation of cannabis
Oaksterdam in Oakland, California, is the world's only university dedicated to the study and cultivation of cannabis (Alain Jocard/AFP/Getty Images)

On New Year's Day, thousands of marijuana fans flocked to Washington State and Colorado to light up and celebrate the fact that smoking cannabis was no longer a criminal offence in those two states .

There was also cause for celebration that went beyond seeing in the new year at Oaksterdam University in Oakland, California, the world's only university dedicated to the study and cultivation of cannabis.

The more states that make cannabis legal, the more students are likely to want to enroll in it's unique educational programmes.

Since it was founded in 2007, Oaksterdam University has seen more than 15,000 students pass through its doors. And while for some the image of a cannabis college may conjure up an image of hippies toking away on a sofa discussing the meaning of life, students there see the classes as an entry point to a legal, lucrative business that is forecast to be worth more than $2bn (£1.2m) in 2014.

Given that marijuana dispensaries in Colorado reported sales of $5m in the first week of decriminalisation, they could well be right.

"We're farmers. Not drug dealers" is a common refrain in the classrooms where students learn the ins and outs of running a profitable cannabis business that captures a chunk of the estimated 7.6 million daily or near-daily marijuana smokers (according to the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health).

Although the university is small, consisting of just a handful of classrooms, it has a common room for students and the seminars feel as thought they could be taking place in an ordinary college, with some of students struggling to stay awake during a highly technical explanation of hydrophonic use.

Classes include legal advice, electrical engineering and, of course, horticulture. As well as one- and two-day courses, the university, which is, in officialese, actually a non-accredited for-profit academic facility, offers semester (13-week)-long study programmes. It costs $495 for a two-day seminar, up from $350 last year. As one student – who wished to remain anonymous – explained, "There's a lot more to cannabis cultivation than I ever thought. People think it's simple, but for indoor growing there's a lot of technical aspects, how to get the best use of the lights, what amount of water the plants need."

He adds: "Of course we should have laws governing cannabis production, like any other crop, to make sure no harmful chemicals or pesticides are used."

But if it's full steam ahead for Colorado and Washington, where cannabis is legal both for medical and recreational use, in California, where the university is based, the laws are much murkier.

Cannabis possession for medical reasons is legal according to Californian state law but illegal in federal law, a discrepancy that led to Oaksterdam being raided in April 2012 by a combined force of the Department of Justice, the Internal Revenue Service and the US Marshalls Service who seized the university's cannabis plants and equipment.

And while no charges were ever brought, many prospective students were put off, numbers dropped and the university was forced to move to a smaller location.

But now enrollment numbers are on the up, classes are held every day of the week and there is a waiting list to get on the courses.

And with 20 states allowing some form of cannabis production, the future is looking bright for Oaksterdam. As one student says, "People have always smoked cannabis and the country's laws have finally caught up. For those who get on the ground floor, they are going to make a lot of money. And what's more American than that?"

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