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Marijuana 101: Welcome to cannabis class

For Americans looking to enter the booming, quasi-legal marijuana business, step one is pot class


 
James Cheadle/Solent News/REX/CP

James Cheadle/Solent News/REX/CP

It’s a rare education seminar that includes this shot across the bow: “Everything and anything we’re talking about today is federally illegal—there is no grey area.” Yet that’s the warning that course facilitator Doug Porter issued to the dozen students attending a one-day workshop held by the Cannabis Career Institute (CCI) at a Baltimore airport hotel on a recent rainy Saturday. “I don’t want you to be negged out by this,” he said. “If you’re crossing your T’s and dotting your I’s, chances are you’ll never spend a day in jail.”

Welcome to America’s (sort of) legal marijuana business—the fastest growing industry in the U.S., showing 74 per cent market growth in 2014, to $2.7 billion. Medical cannabis is now legal in 23 states and the District of Columbia. Nine others have legislation pending and four states, along with D.C., allow for its recreational use.

In 2014, Maryland’s state legislature decriminalized possession of small amounts of the drug and updated the state’s medical marijuana law to allow for state-licensed commercial growing operations and dispensaries. (Minnesota and New York also brought in new medical marijuana laws last year.)

So while Porter is right—the federal government classifies marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug that can’t be legally bought, sold, grown or possessed and with no currently accepted medical benefits—there is in fact plenty of grey area when it comes to pot in America. It’s in this grey area that CCI’s students are looking to set up shop. The seminar gave them an overview of the plant—for example, the difference between its sativa and indica strains—the legal hurdles involved in Maryland’s newly proposed regulations, the booming market for edibles and tinctures, and the basics of growing the plant itself.

Phil is a 26-year-old with a preppy fashion sense who’s looking forward to eventual full legalization. He wants to start “almost a craft brewery type of thing” for cannabis connoisseurs, experimenting with different hybrids. “To me, it’s an art form,” he says. There’s Marie, an engineer in her 50s, who sees her place in the industry as “either in education, teaching, or even as part of the peripheral [marijuana] economy. I can see myself getting together some people and opening up a testing lab, trying to figure out a new, innovative way to get this to people.”

And there’s Kal Shah, the only student comfortable giving a journalist his full name. He’s the furthest along in establishing himself in what will be Maryland’s new legal medical marijuana market, after taking a CCI course over a year ago. Shah’s a regular at Maryland’s Medical Marijuana Commission meetings, where the state is fleshing out the program’s details, and he showed up to the course seeking potential business partners in his venture.

Maryland is expected to start accepting applications for the limited number of licences it will issue later this year, and Shah is jockeying for the full trifecta that will provisionally be available—a grower’s licence, a dispensary licence and a licence to process products like tinctures, oils and edibles. It won’t be cheap. Maryland has set the biennial cost of a grower’s licence at $250,000, and $80,000 for a dispensary licence.

Shah, like most of the students at the CCI course, doesn’t fit the pothead mould. A self-described entrepreneur, Shah’s a web developer, a Subway restaurant franchisee and the co-owner of a liquor store in a suburban Maryland strip mall. But with restaurant profits being squeezed by the likes of Chipotle and fears that big-box stores will encroach on the liquor market, he set out to find the next big thing. “How many other industries, how many other opportunities will I have to do something new and groundbreaking? Pioneering?” he says. “This is my chance. I’m going to take it.”

The man behind CCI is Robert Calkin, 51, who Porter describes as the one-time “weed king of Hollywood.” Originally from Virginia, at just 13, in 1976, he helped organize a pro-pot rally on the National Mall in Washington. “We marched from the Lincoln Memorial to the White House, smoking marijuana the whole way, thinking, any time now, it’s going to be legal,” he says. He later moved to California and in 1988 started an L.A.-based pot delivery service whose clientele—at least according to Porter—included a host of celebrities. Calkin’s first foray into cannabis education was with Oakland’s Oaksterdam University, founded in 2007 and billed as the first marijuana trade school in the U.S. and where he remains on the faculty.

It was in 2009, at the height of the recession, when Calkin saw a market for training that focused less on marijuana activism—Oaksterdam’s first-ever ad urged prospective students to “become a freedom fighter”—and more on the basics of “how can I get out of this humdrum job and get into this exciting new cannabis industry,” he says.

The company now hosts regular one-day seminars in various cities across the U.S., targeting places like Maryland where drug reforms are happening. “The idea behind a lot of stuff we’re teaching in the classes is ‘now is your time,’ ” he says. “We have a short window to get in here and be the little guy, build up a business so that it could potentially be bought out by the corporate interests in the future, or be competing for the corporate interests.”

Calkin says there are three types of people who sign up for CCI seminars—“the average Joe just looking for a job, trying to make himself attractive to the industry,” the “entrepreneurs who are coming in to create their own businesses, find investors, find workers,” and “the professionals, who are realizing that ‘Hey, I can add this to my toolbelt. I can be a green accountant, I can be a green lawyer.’ ”

Oaksterdam and CCI are just one of many “pot universities”—a hodge-podge of trade schools, seminars and online certifications offering training to people keen to capitalize on the cannabis gold rush. There’s little in terms of widely recognized certification or established best practices. Oaksterdam’s executive chancellor, Dale Sky Jones, says “it’s buyer beware” and welcomes better oversight and education requirements.

She says her school ensures prospective pot entrepreneurs get a dose of the legal reality. “The most important lesson to teach these students in the current federal climate and the current legal climate and the current social climate, for that matter, is what not to do. And that’s not sexy,” she says. In other words, she jokes: “getting it through people’s thick skull at how ridiculously difficult this still is.”

Since 2009, the Obama administration has encouraged federal prosecutors not to target state-sanctioned medical marijuana businesses operating in accordance with state laws. In 2013, after Colorado and Washington legalized recreational pot use for adults, the federal Department of Justice deferred “the right to challenge their legalization laws at this time” as long as those states ensured compliance with their regulations.

But according to the National Cannabis Industry Association (NCIA), “some U.S. attorneys are openly defying this policy by continuing to threaten state-legal cannabis businesses with criminal action and civil-asset forfeiture.” Late last month, the NCIA spent two days on Capitol Hill lobbying members of Congress to smooth out the wrinkles between federal and state laws.

There’s some movement on that front. In March, the CARERS Act was introduced in the Senate, a bipartisan bill that would recognize pot as having medicinal value and would allow states with legal medical marijuana businesses to operate without federal interference. As it stands, something as simple as getting a bank account is a potential roadblock. Many major banks are hesitant to work with businesses involved in legal pot, over concerns it could place them in the federal government’s crosshairs. And due to a quirk in the Internal Revenue Code, legal marijuana businesses, many of which are small start-ups, can’t deduct normal business expenses on their federal taxes, thereby raising their tax burden.

For the students at CCI, none of that is proving a deterrent–though Shah, who’s used to government red tape from owning a liquor business, admits “the hoops you have to jump through for this are way, way different.”


 

Marijuana 101: Welcome to cannabis class

  1. I’d like to comment on this section:

    “a hodge-podge of trade schools, seminars and online certifications offering training to people keen to capitalize on the cannabis gold rush. There’s little in terms of widely recognized certification or established best practices. Oaksterdam’s executive chancellor, Dale Sky Jones, says “it’s buyer beware” and welcomes better oversight and education requirements.

    She says her school ensures prospective pot entrepreneurs get a dose of the legal reality. “The most important lesson to teach these students in the current federal climate and the current legal climate and the current social climate, for that matter, is what not to do. And that’s not sexy,””””””

    Truth is – there are some out there that are only out to capitalize and make money on teaching the wrong things – but there ARE some out there that care about the industry and are opting to make a difference. My company, Cannabis Integrity Authority, is one such company.

    Bob (Robert Calkin, President of CCI and educator at Oaksterdam) is amazing at speaking and is a fantastic educator for bringing people into the industry. So much better than many of the other educators that took the CCI idea and ran with it, duplicating the exact content. Doug rocks, as well. They are the people we send those wanting to get into the industry to. I have worked closely with Calkin and think he’s amazing.

    We are the next portion, so to speak. We teach cannabis businesses that are operating – the best way to self regulate – prior to the states coming in and creating regulation. We teach business ethics, strain guidance, patient safety, lingo, and basic standardization, rounded out with some philosophy, and providing insight into how the industry is operating. We are available to help law enforcement work with cannabis businesses, or the other way around – while we provide state agencies training and assistance with writing cannabis business regulations… The truth is – the law makers do NOT communicate with the cannabis industry as they create the laws, they don’t communicate with law enforcement as they write the laws — and certainly all three of the groups do not speak to each other on a regular basis. This makes laws oftentimes ridiculous and how can anyone those laws affect complain – if they were not involved in the law making process? They can’t…

    We try very hard to get these groups to work together during our classes – when it is possible. But even if we only get cannabis businesses in – we have done what we set out to do… And it isn’t just to “MAKE MONEY”…. It’s great to pay the bills, thank you, but schools and education are rarely going to be profitable… unless you get federal grant money… And you can’t get federal grant money in the USA – if you’re not accredited – and you can’t get accredited if you’re involved with the cannabis industry… UNLESS… and the only way around this caveat, is if you’re pulling CME’s for medical.

    We’re waiting until federal laws step down, as we all believe they will sometime in 2016. CME’s just don’t cut it for us — we want the businesses operating professionally and safely for the patients.

    But regardless what ANY School teaches a student — Federally ANY level of cannabis is illegal. Federally – cannabis business is illegal. Period. No discussion. There are pretty “notes” or “advisories” out — but marijuana/cannabis/hemp — has not changed from SCHEDULE ONE — which makes it illegal. Period.

    Regardless if you agree to that or not.

    And she’s right — that’s NOT sexy… We all know they probably won’t bother you — (Re Cole Memo) — if you are running on the up and up – and a lawyer can probably get you off any charges… Still – the truth is, if the Feds want to arrest you – they don’t have anything stopping them from doing so.

    If you want to make changes – you have to be the one to step up to the plate, get out there, advocate or get into politics. That’s how it works.

    We teach, we educate, we believe in this industry and want it to survive. And the only way – we see it surviving, is if all the people involved stop acting like it’s a drug deal, and instead start treating it like it’s a business, whether medical or recreational. Stand up and be proud of your business – act and do business with ethics and be a part of a peer to peer guidance group… Get involved in politics… stop hiding it — speak out.. Make a difference. Educate and teach others.

    But most of all be a role model.

    We have our next classes this weekend – Saturday in Sacramento and Sunday in San Diego… Please feel free to check us out… We’re open for conversation.

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