College of the Desert, which serves more than 400,000 residents of nine local cities and the students of the Palm Springs, Desert Sands and Coachella Valley school districts, is now among California’s fastest growing community colleges.

In collaboration with local businesses, College of the Desert will start guiding students through the weeds of state compliance in the ever-growing and highly-regulated cannabis industry.

Certificate programs for state compliance and human resources will both launch later this month at the college’s Desert Hot Springs campus. According to administrators at the college’s Partnership and Community Education office, the college is responding to local needs.

“The Coachella Valley began to say that this is an industry that we believe from an economic standpoint is going to expand,” said Pam Hunter, the college’s executive director of institutional advancement. “Ensuring there is a trained workforce is part of the mission at the College of the Desert.”

The college will offer a series of courses in cannabis compliance and one for human resources regulations. Students will need to complete a sequence of three sessions for each course to earn certificates. The curricula were designed by legal and industry experts at Highroad Consulting Group, a Desert Hot Springs consulting company that provides services to cannabis businesses.

“When you’re in the cannabis industry, you move at the speed of government,” said Ryan Fingerhut, director of licensing and compliance at High Road Consulting who will teach the compliance course. “If you want to move a room, if you want build a wall or if you want to change your hours of operations, you can’t just do that. You have to get government approval.”

Fingerhut and the other industry experts who will be teaching the classes say the industry’s partnership with the college will help businesses approach the economic opportunity responsibly. They hope this certificate program will help emerging professionals navigate the nascent regulations and the shifting culture surrounding cannabis.

“I’m a great proponent of formal education. When you learn things on your own, you’re often learning from your mistakes,” said Fingerhut. “Mistakes in this industry can get your business shut down.”

Cannabis cultivators have a complex set of state and federal regulations to navigate. According to Fingerhut, it all comes down to keeping in line with the state’s efforts to track every piece of cannabis produced within its borders.

“Right now, everybody operates under the idea that if we’re tracking cannabis, we’re making sure it’s not flowing into other states where it’s not legal,” he said. “If the state is  not making sure that all of this is highly regulated, we’re afraid the federal government will come in.”

The State of California, Fingerhut said, strictly monitors everything from hygiene to when the harvested buds are weighed. He said the product can’t be weighed too early, because growers have to allow some of the water to evaporate. In the Coachella Valley’s climate, there’s the added concern that the buds will dry out too much, skewing the documented weight of the product.

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While most minor violations will result in warnings from the state, mislabeled packages can cost a cultivator around $1,500. If entire shipments of hundreds or thousands of packages are mislabeled, those fees can crush the entire business.

The compliance course, the first of which starts next week, will condense these rules and more into a curriculum that trains aspiring professionals to recognize potential problems and escalate them to managers instead of memorizing all the regulations.

“You can teach this for months and months,” said Fingerhut. “We’re looking to train in issue-spotting: not understanding the full solution, but knowing when there’s an issue.”

On top of that, the walls of the regulatory labyrinth are always moving. Since legalization, the rules have changed several times. 

“I already had to tweak some of the class,” Fingerhut said. “I’ll actually spend some time  teaching how to keep up. What’s right today might not be right tomorrow.”

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Cannabis is a grow house in Coachella on Tuesday, April 3, 2018. (Photo: Richard Lui/The Desert Sun)

Fingerhut recommends this class especially for middle managers at cultivation centers or dispensaries who want to learn what needs to be reported to their supervisors. However, the course will also cater to everyone from longtime cultivators and advocates to traditional business owners looking to transition into the newly legalized industry.

“What the College of the Desert is doing is leveling the playing field for traditional businesses to come in to understand things like HR and state compliance,” said Greta Carter, a partner at Highroad Consulting Group. “The student will leave with a good understanding of how to merge those two cultures.”

Carter, who helped design the curriculum, said she hopes to see standardized cannabis compliance courses across California in the near future. 

“The state needs to have a formal education certification for license renewal in order to make sure everyone is singing from the same song sheet,” she said. “It’s a big but obtainable goal.”

The college anticipates this certificate program will continue into the future, beyond the scheduled classes. The first three-hour session of the cannabis compliance course will be held Aug. 22, and each session will cost $105. There is no deadline for registration. Additional dates and information can be found here.

“I see this course as a real shift,” said Fingerhut. “Rather than adapting to the underground cannabis industry, this is us becoming a legitimate industry.”

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that each session costs $49. The actual cost for each three-hour session is $105.

Joe Hong is the education reporter for The Desert Sun. Reach him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @jjshong5.

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