Cannabis 101: Schools scramble to educate a weed workforce

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Hexo's director of human resources Andrée St-Cyr. Photo by Mark Holleron.

With the specifics of the Ontario government’s plan to privatize the sale of cannabis still a little hazy, Joël Dubois knows he has his work cut out for him this winter.

Dubois, a partner at the Ottawa law office of Perley-Robertson, Hill & McDougall, will be breaking new academic ground in January when he and colleague Megan Wallace take the reins as the lead instructors of the new cannabis law course at the University of Ottawa.

The course, the first of its kind in Canada, will run for about three weeks. Students will learn about the licensing and regulatory frameworks of the cannabis industry as well as how legalizing the drug will affect everything from employment to property law. Diane Labelle, general counsel at Health Canada Legal Services, will teach a similar course at uOttawa in French this fall.

Dubois says the forthcoming legalization of pot will have far-reaching consequences on everyone from HR managers to landlords, and lawyers need to know how to deal with the legal issues that will inevitably arise.

“It’ll be fun to put it on,” he says. “There will be a lot of what-ifs and question marks. There are not going to be a lot of cases (to study) on the recreational side for some time.”

Dubois says a legal landscape already fraught with uncertainty became even more unpredictable when the new provincial government decided to reverse course on a plan to have the Ontario liquor board control cannabis sales and instead opted to put the drug in the hands of private retailers as of next spring.

“There were already a lot of questions, but now there’s a last-minute curveball on some of these things, which will create some chaos I suspect come Oct. 17,” he says.

As an example, he says, commercial landlords now face heavy penalties for allowing pot to be sold at their properties, a situation that will have to change in time for private retailers to hit the market next April.

His course will also feature a field trip to the Tweed production facility in Smiths Falls, where students will get a first-hand look at the product they’re learning about.

“That’ll be fun for the students to have an opportunity to see a production facility,” Dubois says.

The University of Ottawa’s new law course is just one of a number of programs cropping up at post-secondary schools across Canada in response to the explosive growth of the cannabis industry and the resulting demand for thousands of new workers.

cannabis chalkboard

McGill, Ryerson enter the field

Earlier this year, for example, southern Ontario’s Niagara College announced it was launching a one-year post-graduate commercial cannabis production program developed in conjunction with more than a dozen licensed producers, including Tweed parent Canopy Growth.

Ryerson University in Toronto, meanwhile, said this summer its Ted Rogers School of Management would be introducing a course ​– appropriately numbered 420 ​– called “the Business of Cannabis,” focusing on topics such as retailing, marketing, quality control and financing. And Montreal’s McGill University plans to enter the field by offering a diploma program in cannabis and cannabis production, likely starting next fall.

Andrée St-Cyr, director of human resources at Gatineau cannabis producer Hexo (formerly Hydropothecary), is a big fan of the new programs. She says the rapidly growing firm has been “really lucky to find some exceptional employees across the board” but adds that new hires generally face a lot of on-the-job training, and any extra education they can get will help.

“We’ve been able to find certain skillsets that were transferable from other industries, but there is a substantial learning curve to get to know the specifics of cannabis,” she says.

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Hexo's Andrée St-Cyr (right) is looking forward to the new crop of talent the Gatineau-based pot producer will soon be able to draw from. Photo by Mark Holleron.

The company is currently adding to its headcount at the dizzying rate of 10 people a week, St-Cyr says, and now sits at about 225 employees. She says that number could hit 500 by the end of the year.

Finding skilled workers at such a clip would be a challenge for any business, St-Cyr adds, but even more so in a rapidly expanding, constantly evolving young sector such as cannabis.

“It’s nice for (post-secondary schools) to recognize our industry, to take an interest in it,” she says. “Really, at the end of the day, it’s kind of a win-win because they get to train people in this booming industry where there is a lot of opportunity, and we get to have access to a qualified workforce.”

At Tweed in Smiths Falls, spokesperson Caitlin O’Hara says the company was content in its early days to rely on so-called “black-market” employees who cut their teeth in the underground pot scene. But as the industry moves into the mainstream, it’s becoming more and important for producers to foster a climate where formalized education becomes the norm, she says.

"It reflects the fact that the majority of Canadians do feel this industry has legitimacy."

Natalie Wood, director of human resources at Ottawa-based National Access Cannabis, agrees programs such as those at McGill, Niagara College and Ryerson are vital to the industry’s continued development.

“It reflects the fact that the majority of Canadians do feel this industry has legitimacy,” she said in an email to OBJ. “I feel that, given the pace of growth we expect, cannabis in Canada will become a major employer, and these courses reflect a similar specialization approach as we see with other major industries in Canada such as forestry, manufacturing, oil and gas and health care.”

'Irrational exuberance'

Critics, however, have questioned the rush for schools to close the cannabis skills gap.

David Robinson, executive director of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, told the National Post earlier this year there was an “irrational exuberance” among post-secondary institutions to get into the cannabis game, comparing the situation to the dot-com boom of the 1990s when schools scrambled to boost their computer science programs.

“When the market crashed, there was now serious overcapacity and many graduates couldn’t find work,” he said.

But the cannabis industry has an urgent need for workers with highly specialized skills in areas such as genetics, horticulture, cultivation techniques, pest control and biotechnology, and the new courses are simply a response to that demand, St-Cyr argues.

“You’re kind of borrowing skills from pharmaceutical or food industries, but it is still quite different,” she explains. “People need to understand that the cannabis industry is complex. There are a lot of components to the cannabis industry. So I think that when educational institutions … start developing programs, then we build an expertise that we will need to maintain the existing industry, take it to the next level and help it grow.”

Finding growers is a particular challenge, she adds. The producer’s current master grower, Agnes Kwasniewska, is a former researcher at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada who came to Hydropothecary after heading up a flower greenhouse. The company is now searching for a new master grower as it prepares for a massive expansion that will see it open a new, one-million-square-foot greenhouse before the end of the year.

“Frankly, experience growing cannabis, especially on a large scale, is a very rare skill,” St-Cyr notes.

And as the number of courses catering to the cannabis industry grows, so does interest in studying the field. The University of Ottawa accepted 25 second- and third-year students into its inaugural law course, Dubois says – but that still left a waiting list 81 names long.

“I think it’s the longest waiting list there is,” he says with a laugh. “(Cannabis) is the topic du jour. Everybody is talking about it.”