The presence of marijuana on a college campus may conjure negative images for some, but with its approval for medical purposes, cannabis is now part of the curriculum at one Ohio technical college.
Nestled in the foothills of Appalachia, the 50-year-old Hocking College with its student body of around 3,000 probably wasn’t expected by many if any to be the first in the nation to offer a cannabis laboratory technician major and run the testing lab for Ohio’s medical marijuana industry. However, with part of its mission pledging to not only be a partner but a leader in “regional economic development to address social and economic disparity,” it seems natural Hocking would look toward the burgeoning economy expected with medical marijuana.
“Our region has struggled, this is not a new struggle, for jobs, and so anybody who will come to our area and create 5-to-15 jobs, matters. And good paying jobs and a good field here of laboratory work,” said Hocking President Betty Young.
The opportunity has another perk, too – a revenue stream Hocking plans to use for scholarships to help more students afford a chance to obtain one of its two-year degrees.
The stars seemed to have aligned when Jonathan Cachat first approached Young about running a medical cannabis testing lab and creating a cannabis laboratory technician major at Hocking. Young, who became president of the college in 2014, has been helping propel the college forward with the addition of new programs – 14 over the past 18 months – and laboratory science was already on her radar after the Ohio EPA approached them about a graying wastewater management technician workforce. They also learned there were similar needs in both the healthcare and chemical engineering industries.
For Cachat, he saw the state’s plan to begin testing oversight at a public institution of higher learning as something that made sense. However, when assessing for the institutions to approach, he believed the larger ones some may have expected to vie for the opportunity to run the testing lab would likely go into a state of “analysis paralysis.”
“Even though there’s no evidence that the feds would come in and shut off the federal grants or take away the federal grant money, all these major universities, they need those funds to run,” Cachat said.
Also, some of the other institutions are interested in the growing side of the industry, Young noted, particularly those with an agricultural focus. As such, if they had the lab, they would be precluded from diving into other areas of the industry because Ohio “has been very clear there needs to be separation among the different segments of the industry,” Young said.
“It didn’t take us very long to figure out it would be a great program from the academic side for our students here … We had been exploring doing a broader laboratory program for the institution for a while and were progressing on that front, and this fit very nicely within that laboratory science curriculum,” Young said.
At 32, Cachat’s a bit younger than some may picture as having a doctorate and now leading Hocking’s laboratory science program. However, Cachat, who hails from Avon in northeastern Ohio, has experience in psychopharmacology research, running a DEA licensed lab, and various aspects of the cannabis industry in California.
While Hocking wasn’t the only institution Cachat approached, like Young, it didn’t take long to deduce it was a match.
“She said it doesn’t really matter what I or anyone else here personally thinks about medical cannabis. The state has called on the public institutions of higher education to step up to this mandate, and we’re willing to explore that,” Cachat said. “So a president who has leadership, who can make quick choices, who can pull the entire advisory team together, can make a decision and turn it around in a day, it’s business-focused but education values-based, that’s where the match was.”
As Cachat and Young talk about the program, there’s an obvious excitement about the field, particularly how a student’s interest in cannabis may serve as an impetus to pursuing higher education and may even blossom into a passion for research.
“Cannabis, this plant, as a topic can really excite students to learn more about analytical chemistry … It really represents an opportunity for students or for high school graduates that didn’t necessarily think they had much of a career path before them, in front of them, to jump to a biomedical path and get a job in the biggest growing industry in the U.S.”
“For people who want to work in this new emerging industry, this is one pathway to get into the industry,” Young said. “Now they may or may not ultimately work in the lab piece of this because what they’re learning regarding the science can be applied to all aspects of the cannabis industry. Certainly having the laboratory background gives them a much deeper understanding of the industry and all aspects of that – growing, producing – and would make them a highly desirable employee.”
Students who earn the cannabis laboratory technician degree won’t be limited to the industry. According to Cachat, the degree will set them up to also have the qualifications for other agricultural and environmental analytical lab work.
Young anticipates the program may bring more students into Hocking from other states, mainly bordering states where they already offer a tuition break. Since Hocking doesn’t receive state funding for out-of-state students, those students typically would pay twice the amount of in-state students, but those in bordering states are charged just $500 more.
On the commercial lab side of things, Hocking is expecting to generate a profit. Although unsure exactly what to expect regarding revenue, Young said they will be able to direct the money toward creating more scholarships for students.
“Because of this program, because of the new revenue streams, we’ll be able to help finance their education.”
Cachat has a list of at least 50 and counting who have expressed interest in the cannabis lab tech major, and potential employers also are anxiously awaiting graduates.
“We were at a Level 1 grow up in Eastlake … they have a complete on-site lab for doing analytical testing. The first thing he sort of laughed about or joked around, was too bad those cannabis lab techs aren’t graduating because I need to hire them and he can’t find them,” Cachat said. “We’re really setting them up to fill jobs that are in high demand across the board with this program.”
The final pieces of the program have been coming together quickly. The Ohio Department of Higher Education recently approved Hocking’s new program, and this week, Young learned the regional accrediting body – the Higher Learning Commission – has provided preliminary approval, which is set to be finalized at its upcoming meeting. The labs – one for teaching and one for the official testing – are expected to be complete by mid-September.
While Hocking remains focused on getting the lab and program up and going smoothly, Young said they’ll stay alert to the needs of the cannabis industry for other educational opportunities.
“We’re always looking to be innovative on the cutting edge,” Young said. “As long as there are jobs, we’re going to seek those programs here because that’s what we do.”