Higher Education: What Students Learn in Weed 101

College classes that focus on marijuana aren't as 420-friendly as you would think.

Sep 2 2015, 7:00pm

Photo by Jaki Portolese via Stocksy

Higher education has taken on a new meaning in college seminars like "Tax Planning for Marijuana Dealers" at Harvard University and "Representing the Marijuana Client" at the University of Denver that have been cropping up over the past few years.

Over six universities around the U.S. now offer cannabis-related classes, but students interested in smoking up and slacking off shouldn't look to these courses as the stoner equivalent of "Basket Weaving 101." With the rapidly changing landscape of legal weed, these classes focus on engaging students in the nuanced conversation around proposed and existing marijuana laws.

Professor Douglas Berman teaches "Marijuana Law, Policy, and Reform" at Ohio State University's Moritz College of Law, and he says his graduate students always get to class on time. Berman taught his first dedicated cannabis seminar in the fall semester of 2013 after realizing that Colorado and Washington were unlikely to be the only states to have major debates around legalization. "There's a lot that law students can learn by really focusing exclusively on marijuana reform," Berman says. "There are so many different types of legal issues that arise in this space and if serious people don't spend time thinking through them all, [legalization] will catch us unaware and move past us more quickly than we probably would like."

For Berman, and other law professors in the field, weed is a weighty subject. States that have voted for legalization—whether recreational, medicinal, or both—are still still operating in a legal gray area. Beyond an obvious conflict with the Controlled Substances Act, many other state legalization policies could be in discordance with federal law. Benjamin Leff at American University hosted the Harvard seminar "Tax Planning For Marijuana Dealers" after his eponymous paper to address how emerging cannabusinesses could reconcile with federal tax code.

There's a lot that law students can learn by focusing exclusively on marijuana reform.

Students expect to tackle issues like this in Berman's law and policy class, which has been so successful he's renewed it for the third time this coming school year. With the growing demand for marijuana studies, Berman is also teaching a one-week seminar at the University of Colorado's law school in January in addition to his class at Ohio State.

Marijuana isn't legal in Ohio, but a constitutional amendment on the ballot for November 3rd could change that. "A big theme my course focuses on is the question of policy for jurisdictions that see legalization coming. What legal and structural components of your regulatory system do you want to build in to maximize the benefits of reform and minimize the perceived harms? That involves looking at the experiences in Colorado and the experiences in some of the other states to sort of see where that's taking us," Berman says. "What's exciting about that is every year I teach the course I've got to come up with new material because what we're learning is changing and the politics and the policies are changing as well."

Since marijuana law is being actively shaped, comprehensive textbooks and casebooks on the subject are virtually non-existent. The first year Berman taught his class, he used a general text on controlled substance law. "However, by the second year, not only were there other materials that I could offer students—reports coming from different jurisdictions that were working on reform—but a big part of what I've done is actually have the students themselves pick a topic they're interested in and develop readings that I share on a blog, Marijuana Policy and Reform," says Berman. Currently, Berman is developing his own casebook, and Vanderbilt law professor Robert Mikos confirmed to Broadly that he is writing a textbook for legal publisher Aspen that will be out next year.

While Berman's students are more likely to be studying than stoned, their personal interests in the realm of weed are varied. Berman has all his grad students do a presentation for their colleagues at the end of the semester.

"I had one student who was very focused on driving under the influence and he proposed models of legislation for what states should do, in terms drugged driving, in the wake of legalization. Certain students have used their project to develop policy recommendations. Other students have instead done more academic inquiries. Giving students the chance to engage with whatever piece of marijuana law intrigues them has been part of the excitement for me. You continue to see new developments at the state, national, and international level and students can get excited about whatever role they want to imagine themselves playing."

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Surprisingly, the students in Berman's class are as diverse as their interests. His class boasts a roughly equal number of men and women, though Berman admits there is a certain white male privilege in the subject matter when it comes to talking about marijuana in a collegiate setting. "I'm not aware of any women who are teaching in this space," Berman says. "The professors who I know teaching these types of classes, at least at the law level, are white men. Unfortunately, that may be because we're given more legitimacy [on an institutional level] and don't have as many biases blocking the work we want to do."

But Berman is hopeful that he's teaching a new generation of students that will be able to work uninhibited. "A lot of law firms are hesitant to get into this space," Berman admits, "but as the industry evolves it's going to need lots of lawyers. I'm hoping my students will be well positioned for jobs in this industry that when they graduate."