With a promise to train students to become “leaders in the burgeoning cannabis industries,” Ontario’s Niagara College will soon roll out a one-year post-graduate commercial cannabis production program. The school developed the program’s curriculum in consultation with more than a dozen licensed producers. However, one of the companies that advised the school on its curriculum recently made headlines when two board members resigned amid a review by securities regulators into their trading activities.
Last fall, the New Brunswick Community College announced the launch of a 12-week program designed to prepare students for careers as “cannabis cultivation technicians.” But the school’s chief industry partner in that project is the target of a proposed class-action lawsuit stemming from the recall of products that were tainted with pesticides.
Across Canada, colleges and universities are partnering with cannabis companies to develop marijuana-related curricula in anticipation of legalization and to feed the industry’s demand for skilled workers. In an industry growing as rapidly as this one, it is inevitable that there would be a rush to fill the gap. But in that rush, experts say, schools need to exercise caution about who they partner with, how those partnerships are overseen, and what programs are likely to withstand beyond the early days of the industry.
“Where the challenge lies is that this is a very new industry,” said Steven Hoffman, a professor of global health, law and political science at York University. “Universities and colleges will need to be very diligent in making sure they’re partnering with credible, safe and effective industry partners.”
There is a certain “irrational exuberance” among some post-secondary schools to tap into the growing marijuana industry, said David Robinson, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers.
Robinson likened the trend to the dot-com boom in the 1990s when post-secondary schools rushed to churn out computer science programs in anticipation of perceived labour market needs.
“When the market crashed, there was now serious overcapacity and many graduates couldn’t find work.”
The slate of marijuana-related courses in Canada covers everything from cultivation to facility management to marketing. Some schools offer courses online, while others offer training in greenhouse labs.
Many schools have relied on industry partners — typically licensed medical marijuana producers that have been vetted by Health Canada — to help them design their courses and, in some cases, schools have invited industry players to help teach courses.
Proponents say students benefit from exposure to real-world practitioners and case studies, while industry benefits from having a pipeline of prospective employees.
“It was readily apparent that the medical (marijuana) market was growing rapidly, and that there would be a need for education from a workforce training perspective,” said David Purcell, director of emerging business at Kwantlen Polytechnic University in B.C., which is developing a 32-week cultivation technician course on top of courses covering plant production, marketing, financing and retail.
But some recent partnerships are raising questions about whether enough due diligence is being done.
Niagara College is preparing to launch a graduate certificate program in commercial cannabis production. According to the school’s website, courses will cover topics like plant nutrition, climate control and pest control. Students may also get short-term work placements with licensed producers.
School officials say the curriculum was designed in consultation with 19 licensed producers and hundreds of students have applied for one of 24 spots when the program begins in the fall.
One of those industry partners, Maricann Group Inc., announced earlier this year that two board members had stepped down and a $70 million financing deal with a group of investment banks had fallen through amid a probe by the Ontario Securities Commission into possible insider trading. The company also announced that regulators were investigating the activities of its chief executive while he was at an unrelated company.
In an email, Al Unwin, Niagara College’s associate dean in the school of environmental and horticultural studies, said the school’s relationship with Maricann was informal and limited to leveraging the company’s expertise in cultivation, harvesting and growing.
“The mandate of Ontario’s colleges has always been to anticipate and respond to industry needs and demands, and produce skilled, knowledgeable graduates who are prepared for a successful career in their chosen field,” he said.
Graham Farrell, Maricann’s director of investor relations, said he could not comment on the regulatory review and declined to comment on the company’s relationship with Niagara College.
Last fall, the New Brunswick Community College (NBCC) announced it had partnered with a Moncton-based marijuana producer, Organigram Holdings Inc., to deliver a 12-week commercial cannabis cultivation technician program. A press release stated that students would get specialized training and access to Organigram facilities to learn “horticultural best practices.”
Organigram is the subject of a proposed class-action lawsuit stemming from two voluntary recalls of its medical cannabis products. According to Health Canada, the company initiated a recall of five lots in December 2016 after products tested positive for the presence of pesticides not authorized for use on cannabis plants. The following month, the company initiated a recall of 69 lots after further testing confirmed the presence of the same pesticides.
Plaintiff Dawn Rae Downton, who suffers from inflammatory arthritis, experienced nausea and vomiting after consuming Organigram products, according to her statement of claim. The claim alleges the company’s operations were negligent and that the company breached a contract with its clients to provide an organic product free of unauthorized pesticides.
A hearing is set for June 19 to certify the case as a class action. None of the allegations have been proven.
Pierre Clavet, a sector advisor at NBCC, said through a campus spokesman he had no comment on the lawsuit. He said the province has identified the cannabis industry as being a priority area for economic development and that demand for the program has been strong.
Ray Gracewood, Organigram’s chief financial officer, said in an email the company has “over invested” in training to improve its processes and that “a product recall is not something we ever intend to go through again.” He added that the company has a “great relationship” with NBCC.
Even though licensed producers have undergone Health Canada’s rigorous approval process, “there’s always going to be more risk in a brand new industry with so many moving parts,” said University of Denver management professor Paul Seaborn, who teaches a business of marijuana course and is originally from Canada.
“It’s something for these (education) institutions to be aware of and try to guard against.”
Schools also need to be cautious about entering into sponsorship agreements with the cannabis industry, Robinson said. The University of New Brunswick announced last summer that it was establishing a $1 million health research chair in cannabis, funded in part by Tetra Bio-Pharma Inc. A press release at the time said the money would be used to study the “biochemistry, medicinal use and pharmacology of cannabis.”
Robinson says it’s crucial for institutions not to be seduced by the infusion of money and to ensure they do not allow industry to sway research outcomes.
David Magee, UNB’s vice president of research, said through a spokeswoman that Tetra Bio-Pharma will not have any input into the chair’s research agenda. However, “it is expected that the chair will work with the private sector in developing research contracts … to help address specific problems that the industry partner may be encountering.”
In an attempt to bring greater rigour, the National Institute for Cannabis Health and Education (NICHE) Canada — a non-profit which aims to support the development of public cannabis policies — says it plans to launch a voluntary accreditation program for which marijuana producers and post-secondary institutions can apply. It aims to promote responsible behaviour among producers and ensure academic courses are of high calibre.
“We don’t want this to be sort of flavour of the month where people are moving too quickly,” said Barinder Rasode, NICHE Canada’s chief executive.
NICHE Canada is not completely detached from industry, however. Rasode was recently appointed to the advisory board of Liberty Leaf Holdings Ltd., a Vancouver-based firm that invests in new and established medicinal and recreational cannabis companies “to help those companies thrive and accelerate their growth.”
Most of these students who are enrolling in these programs are exactly the people who we really do not want to consume cannabis
One of NICHE Canada’s directors is Trina Fraser, a lawyer and advisor to the cannabis industry, and its advisory council includes people drawn from the cannabis industry.
In its submissions to the federal government last year on what legalization should look like, NICHE Canada advocated easing up on certain proposed restrictions, calling for a “minimum age exception” for users of medical cannabis; urging the government not to impose a taxation regime that was overly onerous on medical cannabis patients; and suggesting there should be no potency restrictions for medical users.
But Rasode denies that her non-profit skews in favour of industry, saying it just wants to ensure lawmakers make decisions on sound facts. “We’re all about creating balance,” she said.
Meanwhile, Hoffman, the York University professor, says he remains a bit troubled post-secondary schools are developing courses with cannabis producers whose products can, according to the Canadian Medical Association, affect brain development in people up to the age of 25.
“Most of these students who are enrolling in these programs are exactly the people who we really do not want to consume cannabis,” he said.
“That’s a bit ironic, don’t you think?”
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