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‘It’s not about advocacy, it’s about education’: Gonzaga offers marijuana education courses

By Ignacio Cowles, The Spokesman-Review
Published: July 30, 2023, 6:00am

SPOKANE — Spokane’s cannabis industry is getting a new level of accreditation this year.

Gonzaga University last week partnered with cannabis education center Green Flower to begin 6-month online programs in both Cannabis Healthcare & Medicine and Cannabis Compliance and Risk Management, that result in a co-branded certificate. They will both begin in early September.

Washington was one the first states in the nation to legalize recreational cannabis use in 2012, and its industry is sizable, with more than $1.3 billion in revenue and $509 million in excise tax as of 2022 reported by the Washington state liquor and cannabis board. Spokane County makes up more than $150 million of that revenue. Spokane is home to more than 30 dispensaries.

While the industry has continued to boom for both recreational and medical purposes, education in the area has remained irregular.

A 2019 survey by UC Irvine of 455 physicians found that while 84% of them had been asked about medical cannabis by patients, little to none had any formal training, and for 64% of them, patients themselves were their primary source on the effects of cannabis. Dispensary staff rarely need to have an accredited certificate for job openings, and many online courses do not require any type of assessment.

Max Simon, CEO of Green Flower, is looking forward to the collaboration.

“A lot of dispensaries don’t have credible guidance to give,” he said, and need someone to teach on the subject. He said these are not “hands-on” courses.

“We don’t find most people here from a consumer level,” he said.

Rachelle Strawther, Gonzaga’s lifelong learning center director, was equally pleased.

“These courses are in alignment with our values,” she said, explaining that the decision and vetting process was long and included a large number of voices within the community.

“I certainly received some questions from stakeholders. People want to ensure we’re doing things the right way.”

The compliance & risk management course is intended for professionals, including lawyers and other “career switchers” who are interested in accessing job opportunities within the cannabis industry, and allows them to become versed in cannabis regulation and business practices. The Healthcare course is made for current healthcare providers looking to better inform their patients and prescribe medical marijuana accurately.

Simon’s company is used to rejection.

“We’ve had a lot of years of misinformation, and there’s still a fair amount of stigma,” he said, “and many universities want to preserve a legacy.”

Green Flower chooses one or two universities that they want to partner with in each state, looking for the right mix of ingredients: a good reputation, as well as a focus on workforce development.

Washington’s cannabis industry is currently rigorously regulated, with each plant part of a seed-to-sale tracking system designed to ensure compliance with every ingredient followed throughout manufacturing and transport.

Simon would be looking forward to a more commercial-friendly level of regulation to simplify the complex legal landscape that cannabis producers and retailers have to navigate. He would love to see it regulated in a “rational” way, even if it wasn’t necessarily in Green Flower’s advantage.

“That would be a great problem to have,” he says.

This type of partnership, in which an external company provides a readymade curriculum, is new for Gonzaga, and Strawther said they are entering a new age, adding that the partnership is at this time open-ended. The course’s 6-month length is typical for Gonzaga certificates, which range from 3 to 9 months.

“It’s going to make the cannabis industry more informed in Eastern Washington, because there’s a knowledge gap,” she said, from local dispensaries to state and nationwide entities involved in the process.

Strawther doesn’t intend for these courses to be political, but to reflect the current reality, where cannabis is a growing business.

“It’s not about advocacy, it’s about education,” she said.