Mark Priest, program coordinator for the horticulture program at North Shore Community College, was instrumental in kicking off the cannabis cultivation program at the school. (Spenser Hasak)
Lynn Item | December 13, 2023 by James Jennings
A decade ago, the idea of a college cannabis program would have seemed unfathomable.
With the advent of legalized cannabis in Massachusetts seven years ago, what was once inconceivable is now reality.
This fall, North Shore Community College launched a six-course, 16-credit cannabis cultivation and retail certificate program.
“Ever since legalization in Massachusetts, it’s been identified as a legitimate business,” Mark Priest, who leads the program, said. “You need to have skilled workers in the field. They’re all plants. It was apparent that students had some interest in that, as well as the industry needing support with skilled workers.”
The curriculum is made up of three horticulture-related classes and three cannabis-specific classes.
“We have the horticulture program already in the school,” Priest said. “That teaches foundational plant sciences. We kept three core horticulture classes in the certificate, and we added three cannabis-specific courses.”
The horticulture classes are plant and soil science, fundamentals of plant health, and greenhouse crop production.
The cannabis classes include cannabis law and the regulatory environment, cannabis retail product development and management, and cannabis cultivation and management.
Priest was quick to clarify that they will not have any physical cannabis plants on site in the greenhouse.
He explained that having physical cannabis plants on site would require a research license and extensive security protocols.
Even then, only the person who holds the research license would be allowed to handle the plants.
Priest said about 15 students signed up for the program’s inaugural semester.
While interest is growing, there is still a stigma to being involved with cannabis, even from other educators.
“There are teachers who don’t really understand it,” Priest said. “They don’t know what’s going to be going on. They think we’ll be growing pot in here. It has a negative connotation to that, for sure.”
He added that it’s his and his students’ mission to debunk the negative connotations and educate people.
Priest took the reins of NSCC’s horticulture program this fall.
He grew up in New Hampshire, developing a love of horticulture from an early age.
After graduating from college, he went to work as a landscape designer and installer.
That career was derailed when he was only 24 years old, though, when he suffered a spinal cord injury in an accident while performing tree care services from a bucket truck.
After rehabilitation, he began looking for another way to use his horticulture background.
“Cannabis had just been legalized, and I had horticulture experience,” Priest said. “So, I applied to one of the beginning companies that opened up and worked there for a year.”
Priest has had a busy first semester at NSCC.
In addition to launching the cannabis program, he worked to expand the horticulture program’s partnership with The Food Project of Lynn.
“They will start a lot of the plants that go up to the community gardens right here in the greenhouse,” Priest said. “Students will do something similar, starting a lot of seeds, then stepping them up to bigger-sized pots. Some of those end up going to the community gardens as well.”