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cannabis chemist

The Next Generation of Cannabis Chemists: Michigan University a Mecca for Marijuana Education

The upper echelon of higher cannabis education is taking place at an unlikely site, at the smallest public university in the state of Michigan.

Lake Superior State University (LSSU), located in Sault Ste. Marie in the state’s Upper Peninsula, established the first cannabis chemistry program in the nation in the fall of 2019.

Dr. Steven Johnson, dean of LSSU’s College of Science and Environment, said the university has a history of analysis that includes an environmental analysis laboratory and superior analytics. 

Training Cannabis Chemists of the Future

When the 2018 proposal to legalize recreational marijuana in Michigan was successful after approximately 56 percent of the population voted in favour, he said LSSU “had an opportunity to train the next generation of chemists” in roles pertaining to safety and compliance.

One year later, the school’s Cannabis Center of Excellence (CCoE) was born. An advisory board was formed that included compliance, production and processing experts statewide. LSSU has also collaborated with industry partners that include ExtractionTek, Cascade Sciences, Signify, and Huber—all of which have donated equipment towards the productions and processing laboratory.

“The best way for our students to learn cannabis chemistry is hands on,” Johnson said. “Our analytical suite of instrumentation is top-tier for a primarily undergraduate institution, and we have a relatively small student population—an exponentially growing subset of whom are cannabis chemistry students.”

cannabis chemist
The Cannabis Center of Excellence at Lake Superior State University

He continued: “This allows individual access to instrumentation and research opportunities that might not be afforded at a larger institution. Our students also benefit from undergraduate research projects, access to cutting-edge technology, and our collaborative partners in industry from across Michigan and beyond.”

‘The Next Advancement’ in Analytics

In March, LSSU announced the upgrade of its cannabis analysis instrumentation that has a two-fold effect on “not only the burgeoning industry, but also environmental science.”

The Agilent 1290 Infinity II UHPLC and Ultivo QQQ mass spectrometer was freshly installed and works in conjunction with the repurposing of existing equipment called Agilent 6470 QQQ.

Benjamin Southwell is an assistant professor of bioanalytical chemistry at LSSU, as well as coordinator of the CCoE. He is responsible for day-to-day operations that include scheduling instrument usage, ensuring maintenance schedules are followed, and pursuing external funding to help support the center’s operation.

He said there are two main components to the new technology: a liquid chromatograph, in the form of the 1290 Infinity II; and a mass spectrometer, in the form of the Ultivo or 6470 QQQ.

“The liquid chromatograph takes your sample containing the chemicals you are looking for all bunched together and, over some time period, separates them into individual components,” Southwell said. “Once they have been separated, the chemicals head to the mass spectrometer, where they are turned into ions and sorted based on their mass.

“The Ultivo is the next advancement from Agilent in mass spectrometers. It offers significant space savings and several technological advancements designed to improve reliability and robustness in an analytical laboratory.”

Another caveat of this technology is its ability to analyze residual pesticides and mycotoxins in cannabis products, both of which are regulated by the Michigan Marijuana Regulatory Authority.

The Ultivo is able to separate and detect 72 pesticides and five mycotoxins in fewer than eight minutes. It also allows for the identification of persistent pollutants in freshwater, such as perfluoroalkoxy alkanes, or PFAs.

Cannabis product safety applications associated with pesticides and mycotoxins will be conducted by the Ultivo, Southwell explained, while the existing 6470 will be refitted to allow LSSU researchers to identify PFAs and other pollutants.

“As the CCoE continues to grow to ensure its utility to not only our cannabis programs but also other academic programs, including those with freshwater sciences, (it) is important to support LSSU’s goal of broad undergraduate interdisciplinary student research,” he said.

cannabis chemist
The freshly installed Agilent 1290 Infinity II UHPLC and Ultivo QQQ mass spectrometer.

Booming Sales and a Strong Push Towards Social Mobility

The flourishing of the CCoE coincides with positive financial news in Michigan as it pertains to recreational marijuana sales.

In March, the Michigan Marijuana Regulatory Agency (MRA) announced that approximately $10 million would be distributed to about 100 municipalities and counties as part of the Michigan Regulation and Taxation of Marijuana Act.

More than $31 million was collected statewide during the 2020 fiscal year due to the 10 percent adult-use marijuana excise tax. When fees are added into the equation, the available funds for distribution increase to nearly $46 million.

That equates to about $28,000 received by every municipality and county with licensed retail stores or microbusinesses, the agency stated, and millions in disbursements towards K to 12 education, transportation, and start-up and administrative costs.

In total, more than $341 million in adult-use marijuana sales were reported for the 2020 fiscal year.

“The team at the Marijuana Regulatory Agency did a tremendous job getting the adult-use licensing program established and operating efficiently,” said MRA Executive Director Andrew Brisbo in a statement. “Infusing over $28,000 per retailer and microbusiness into local government budgets across the state is very impactful and shows how strong and successful the industry is becoming.”

That’s also where research centers like the one at LSSU play a pivotal role. LSSU is part of the MRA’s scientific advisory board and provides support related to cannabis product safety testing.

Southwell said the CCoE has focused primarily on the cannabis plant, with work pertaining to determining the viability of cannabis as both a cash crop to replace hay production in the state’s Upper Peninsula, as well as the utility of the plant as a remediation tool for sites contaminated with heavy metals.

“One of the goals of the cannabis programs at LSSU was to ensure that our students were gaining the skills necessary to excel in this rapidly-evolving industry,” Southwell said. “Industrial advisory boards exist to provide insight and future directions to the programs.”

The exposure gained from LSSU’s chemistry program “has been nothing short of positive,” Johnson said.

“They say a rising tide lifts all boats,” he said. “It is the same case here.”

In April, LSSU announced it would offer a cannabis chemistry scholarship—the first of its kind in the United States. Johnson called it “another historic first” for the school.

“We were the first accredited institution to offer degrees focused on cannabis chemistry and cannabis business, respectfully,” he added. “Then, we opened the Cannabis Center of Excellence, again maintaining our position as pioneers in the education of students studying cannabis chemistry.

“Now, we are offering a scholarship, sponsored by Steadfast Labs, to studyev cannabis chemistry. Demographically, a large percentage of LSSU students are first-generation in college and Pell Grant-eligible, so it is our responsibility to do what we can to make a college education possible for our students, and with it, the social mobility that degree provides.”