Cannabis course aims to cultivate budding marijuana industry

In 2014, Alaska became the fourth state in the U.S. to legalize recreational cannabis use after Colorado, Washington and Oregon. Since then, more than 150 retail cannabis stores have opened in Alaska and remain operating. But despite this growth, navigating the cannabis regulatory landscape can feel like trekking through the precarious Wild West.

UAA alumna and culinary arts assistant professor Riza Brown, A.A.S. Culinary Arts ’11, B.A. Journalism and Public Communications ’11, hopes to provide clarity amid the haze through a new class at UAA: CannaBasics: An Introduction to Culinary Cannabis, which debuted fall 2022.

While no actual marijuana is handled in the class, CannaBasics provides a comprehensive, primarily theoretical overview of all things cannabis during six three-hour sessions. Topics covered include everything from plant anatomy, manufacturing equipment and appropriate dosing to sales, history and laws. But most importantly, the course emphasizes safety.

“Alcohol is a controlled substance with many rules and regulations, and there are definitive resources you can use to find answers,” said Brown. “That wasn’t the case for cannabis, and as an educator I thought that was lacking because this is a legal industry and people will be using this controlled substance. Just like how we teach sanitation to make sure food we serve is safe, we want to approach cannabis from a standpoint of safety and education.”

Housed under UAA’s Culinary Arts and Hospitality Administration Division, CannaBasics is a one-credit, 400-level course open to degree-seeking students and to anyone curious about this growing industry.

Referring to herself as a cannabis neophyte, Brown doesn’t teach the course. Instead, she acts as a curator, inviting local industry professionals from every level of the cannabis pipeline to shape the curriculum and offer their expertise as guest lecturers. On the rare instances when hands-on learning is required, Brown incorporates CBD or hemp, both of which are federally legal and contain little to no THC, the compound that affects the brain.

One of those guest lecturers is Green Jar budtender Donna Keryluk, A.A.S. Culinary Arts ’21, a former student of Brown and the inspiration behind CannaBasics. As part of Brown’s hospitality concept design course, students are tasked with creating a viable business plan for a service industry startup. When Keryluk approached Brown with basing her project on a cannabis consumption cafe, Brown got to work researching the industry and putting together resources, but few were available. So the seed was planted to fill that information gap.

“There may be a guy who is excellent at cannabis-infused baking, but there is a whole process from cultivation to sales,” said Brown. “The only way we can cover all that is by drawing experts from each of those stages and learning from them. Some people may be good at one part, but they don’t see the whole picture, and what UAA can provide is seeing the whole picture from growing the plant to ingesting the plant.”

Normally, creating a curriculum without being a certified expert on the subject might be seen as a disadvantage, but Brown considers her neophyte status the opposite. By approaching the course material with fresh eyes, she can more clearly see what information works and what doesn’t, which is especially important at this pilot stage. Additionally, Brown is able to account for some of the misconceptions and stigmas that continue to surround cannabis.

Eighteen students completed the first CannaBasics course in October 2022, with a second to be offered spring 2023. Other cannabis-centric courses — like one dedicated to baking, which only made up one day of the original CannaBasics curriculum — could follow as Brown is continues exploring options for related programming.

Interest in cannabis at UAA seems to coincide with growing national acceptance. Today, 19 states have legalized recreational cannabis use, and 38 have legalized medical cannabis use, despite still being illegal federally. Looking ahead, researchers estimate cannabis sales could range from $57 billion to $72 billion by 2030. Just in Alaska, the state’s Department of Health and Social Services reports that cannabis sales have generated more than $17 million in state tax revenue in 2019.

“Cannabis will be federally legal at some point, and I want us — Anchorage, Alaska, UAA — to be ready,” said Brown. “As a university, we’re supposed to feed workers into the industry, and this is an industry that doesn’t have those trained workers yet. So we should be the ones that train that workforce and grow the economy, because if UAA doesn’t teach this, where are people going to learn it from?”