Building an industry: Cleveland career school focuses on cannabis education

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a hemp plant

SALEM, Ohio — A quick Google search on cannabis brings up a wide range of results — some praising its potential medical benefits, others denouncing it as a drug.

Julie Strawser, of Columbus, works for Ohio State Extension, but recently became interested in learning about the science behind cannabis. Cannabis is a plant family that includes hemp and marijuana. CBD, or cannabidiol, comes from hemp and does not get users high, like THC in marijuana does.

Strawser started taking it after an accident and several surgeries and was impressed.

“It started having such amazing results with me that I wanted to learn how it was working,” Strawser said.

She began wading through the research. Soon, she found out that Cleveland is home to one of only two state-approved career schools for cannabis education, and the only one east of Colorado.

The Cleveland School of Cannabis may sound out of place in Ohio, where medical marijuana was legalized in 2016 and hemp production was only legalized this year. To the founders, however, it made sense.

“[Cleveland] used to be such an important heartbeat for the rest of the country,” said Kevin Greene, vice president and one of the founders for the school. “We knew that the Midwest was going to be a huge player in the cannabis industry.”

Interest in hemp production exploded since the 2018 Farm Bill legalized it nationally. The infrastructure is still catching up though.

Ohioans are still waiting for a finalized state hemp plan. Farmers are looking for reliable sources for seed, ways to avoid testing over the legal limit for THC and more processors. The supply of hemp is expected to soar, but farmers need a market before they begin planting, much of which is still a work in progress.

Ohio’s potential

As the Midwest gets more involved with cannabis, Greene said the area needs people with experience and knowledge.

As a significant agricultural state, Ohio could be well-positioned to do well, Greene believes.

“We know how to do this,” he said.

Greene noted that in addition to being a big state for agriculture, Ohio has major medical and research facilities, which could encourage more research and involvement with the medical side of cannabis.

“I know our farmers are excited about a transition to hemp,” Greene said. Being in the Midwest will also be a positive as the industry grows and cannabis is exported more between states, he said.

A new industry

Greene’s background, however, is in marketing and business, not cannabis or agriculture.

“I think I’m a great example of what the cannabis industry provides,” Greene said. “It doesn’t need people that just grow or work in dispensaries. It needs management, HR, accountants … we’re building an entire industry … an industry needs full support.”

The school offers tracks in business and management, in addition to horticulture and medical applications for cannabis. Greene said it has plans to launch a program for hemp and CBD early in 2020.

Education

Strawser spent the first half of 2019 going through the school’s executive program, which combines three tracks in medicine, business and horticulture.

She still works full-time, but on the side, she consults with people on CBD use and also sells CBD products.

She hopes to eventually get into dispensary management, where she can work with patients who use cannabis medically.

The school

The school was founded in 2017 and recently expanded to add a Columbus campus.

Greene said about 135 students have graduated so far, with a job placement rate of over 60%. Students have ranged from 18-77. The school works with students at the ends of their programs and post-graduation on career services and job placement.

Older students have seen laws and social standards around cannabis shift over time. Even at 34, Greene remembers the D.A.R.E. era in schools, when students were taught that all drugs were bad. Younger students are more open about possible uses for cannabis.

Marketing

The Congressional Research Service said U.S. CBD sales jumped from $59 million in 2014 to $240 million in 2018. Marketing in the state became much easier when Ohio legalized hemp production, but the CBD industry is still waiting on more U.S. Food and Drug Administration rules.

“I am adamant about compliance with the FDA,” Strawser said.

The FDA is strict about marketing CBD and recently issued warning letters to several companies for claiming their CBD products could treat or cure serious diseases.

Once more FDA regulations come out on CBD products, Strawser expects the industry to grow. Still, it’s been a long time since hemp was grown in many states.

“It’s going to take the industry a while to build,” Strawser said. “It’s in its infancy, and it’s going to take some brave entrepreneurs to get some of the infrastructure started.”

Greene believes educating the public, in addition to customers and those in the industry, about cannabis is a key challenge for the industry right now.

“Once CBD got popular, I say, cannabis went mainstream,” Greene said. “It’s important because cannabis is everywhere … the worst thing that we can do is make decisions off of false information … the best thing that all we can do is to get some base knowledge and understanding.”

Greene pointed out that hemp fiber also has potential as a construction material, and even people with no interest in CBD products may start to see cannabis play a bigger role in their lives that way.

Medical possibilities

Strawser hopes to see CBD get approved as an insurance expense for those use it medicinally. She says, however, that many students and professors at the Cleveland School of Cannabis are interested in medical marijuana as well as in hemp.

Ohio’s medical marijuana program allows certified physicians to recommend patients for medical marijuana, according to the program’s website. Registered patients can buy from an approved dispensary in Ohio. Qualifying medical conditions include epilepsy, Alzheimer’s disease, cancer, post-traumatic stress disorder and Parkinson’s disease, among several others.

Strawser believes cannabis is more than a recreational outlet, like tobacco or alcohol. She hopes more studies and research will confirm the medical benefits she has seen personally and anecdotally.

“The medical side of it wants that proved,” she said. “They have to be very cautious.”

Before Ohio’s medical marijuana program was up and running, students at the Cleveland School of Cannabis interned with companies in Oregon to get practical experience. Strawser went through the school after Ohio started its program, which allowed her to look in-state for internships. She interned with Buckeye Relief in East Lake.

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Reporter Sarah Donaldson is a former 4-Her and a Mount Union graduate from Columbiana County, Ohio. She enjoys playing and writing music, cooking, and storytelling in many forms. She can be reached at 800-837-3419 or sarah@farmanddairy.com.

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