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California colleges link with North Bay firm on cannabis business education

A tour operator and a consortium of educators have formed a partnership with an eye toward stepping up knowledge about the cannabis industry.

“We've partnered with the California Community Colleges faculty and administration to provide educational tours to help develop curriculum and programs around cannabis,” said Jared Giammona, owner of The Sonoma County Experience, which he founded in 2017.

The California Community Colleges system consists of 115 colleges, including one that is administered online. Twenty-eight of the colleges are in the Bay Area.

For now, the tours are a very good way to introduce (cannabis) to community colleges. Audrey Le Baudour, California Community Colleges regional director for employer engagement

There currently are no colleges in California offering cannabis-focused degree programs, mostly because some students are receiving their education through federal funds, and marijuana remains illegal on a federal level, explained Audrey Le Baudour, who works out of the chancellor's office as regional director for employer engagement: workforce and economic development for retail, hospitality and tourism.

“It won't be until further conversations happen with the chancellor's office that they can go full-on and develop either degrees or certificates,” she said. “For now, the tours are a very good way to introduce (cannabis) to community colleges.”

The situation is no different for the state's four-year universities.

Sonoma State University had planned in 2018 to roll out a series of seminars about the subject, geared toward professionals. Those plans were shelved because of cannabis' federal status, which led to a lack of demand for the seminars, said Robert Eyler, dean of the School of Extended and International Education and economics professor at SSU.

For Giammona, the partnership with the community college system makes sense because there already is an informative element to his company's existing recreational tours.

“With the educational tours, it speaks more to our mission and what we're trying to accomplish with helping remove the stigma” about cannabis, Giammona said. “I'm also having the chance to educate educators on this industry, because they're genuinely curious.”

The Sonoma County Experience, which offers a variety of packaged tours starting at $179.99, has about 10 existing partners. They include, but are not limited to, cannabis manufacturer CannaCraft; Flora Terra, an indoor cultivation company; Solful, a cannabis dispensary; Barrel Brothers Brewing Company; and vintners Hook & Ladder, Cline, Karah, Larson and Francis Ford Coppola Winery.

The community colleges partnership with The Sonoma County Experience took shape after Fred Sconberg, one of Le Baudour's colleagues, attended a tour during last year's third annual Wine and Weed Symposium in Santa Rosa.

“I have been exploring this industry (for a while) to see if we could find some way to do career training in the hemp and cannabis industry,” said Sconberg, regional director for employer engagement: workforce and economic development for agriculture, water and environmental technologies. “I thought Jared did a nice job of exposing different elements of the industry.”

After Sconberg attended the tour, he met with Le Baudour and Xavier Nazario, regional director for employer engagement: workforce and economic development for business and entrepreneurship. The state plans to spend between $10,000 and $20,000 putting educators on the tours, depending on how long the tours continue, said Le Baudour.

“My partners and I have clearly established that we see the cannabis industry as a priority industry that needs to be addressed and that's why we've set aside some of our (grant-funded) budget for upscaling in that area,” she said.

The funds go to The Sonoma County Experience and Giammona's business partners. Giammona declined to discuss any figures, but said at this point, he expects his overall business to be profitable this year for the first time.

The three regional directors worked closely with Giammona and his partner businesses to develop the educational tours to address all elements of the cannabis industry, including cultivation, manufacturing and retail.

The Sonoma County Experience's educational tours are available to all 28 colleges, said Le Baudour. There have been three so far, another is on the books for April. Plans at this time call for offering the tours on a monthly basis.

Representatives from the College of Marin and SRJC have already attended a tour; SRJC has more reps signed up for the next two tours, La Baudour said. Napa Valley College hasn't yet signed up.

“When everything is said and done, I would suspect that the majority, if not all of the colleges, will have at least one representative on a tour,” La Baudour said.

Benjamin Goldstein, Santa Rosa Junior College dean of agriculture, natural resources, culinary arts, and industrial and trade technologies, said he plans to join the April tour.

“I'm really curious to see what's happening in the industry,” Goldstein said, emphasizing the community college system regional directors are organizing the tours, not SRJC. “They're not doing anything that's threatening or worrisome, but we've really been deliberate about keeping our project focused on hemp agriculture.”

SRJC announced in August the development of a new hemp agriculture program that will train students in the cultivation of hemp. When the program launches next year, SRJC will become the first community college in the country to offer a certificate and degree program focused on hemp, Goldstein said.

Staff Writer Cheryl Sarfaty covers tourism, hospitality, health care and education. Reach her at cheryl.sarfaty@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4259.

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