Person tending cannabis plants

In March 2021, Brendan Robinson and Stanley Okoro, lifelong friends and founders of the marijuana-related website 420Events.com, found a solution to a problem that had plagued them: how to bring people most frequently impacted by the war on drugs into the now-legal and fast-growing cannabis industry.

Combining their business and industry knowledge, Robinson and Okoro created the Minority Cannabis Academy, a Jersey City-based nonprofit that is essentially a cannabis vocational school for minorities: a place where students learn the science and business of marijuana to get a leg up on jobs in the field. You might call Robinson, Okoro and their students “potrepreneurs.”

“Education is the foundation of this industry. It may not be the sexiest,” said Robinson, “but if we don’t make sure the Black and brown community is educated, we are doing a great disservice.”

After developing its curriculum for 16 months and vetting candidates for their first cohort, MCA held its first class July 11, 2022. (Classes are conducted online.) Eight weeks later, the school graduated 23 of its 24 students.

Initially, MCA offered “Budtending 101” and “Horticulture.” Budtending is designed for students seeking entry-level work in dispensaries while Horticulture targets prospective suppliers of cannabis by offering classroom instruction and labs on the different ways the plant is processed.

Starting January 2023, the academy will also teach a course on how to start and run a pot dispensary. Two other courses are in the pipeline: Cannabis Extraction and Processing (for those interested in working in labs) and Intro to Medical Marijuana and Cannabis Law.

Said Shakena, one of MCA’s recent graduates, “My favorite part is the lab and the open discussions about how the plants grow because it’s fascinating, and I want to know every aspect because I want to open my own dispensary.”

To ensure that students receive the best education possible, MCA collaborated with Harmony’s Dispensary in Jersey City and arranged for experts like Dr. Alan Ao, a local pharmacist, to teach courses. They also planned their curriculum, including tests, homework and hands-on training, around New Jersey’s Cannabis Regulatory Commission guidelines.

“Our program, while it’s fun, it’s interactive, it’s hard,” said Robinson. “It has to be something you really want to do.”

How does one become a pot professional? The school has received so many applications, that right now it’s placing prospective students on a waiting list. Once spots become available, MCA will allocate them based on past marijuana-related convictions (viewed favorably), race, military service (also viewed favorably), “all types of different factors that make it harder, more difficult to navigate any industry, let alone the cannabis industry,” said Robinson.

For those lucky enough to land a spot, tuition is free. Dutchie, which sells a slew of technology to marijuana suppliers and retailers, and other corporate “partners” such as Financial Resources credit union, the law firm Genova Burns, and Cannabist dispensary, underwrite all student expenses. This model was very important to Robinson and Okoru, they said, as both men grew up with meager financial resources themselves.

The academy’s pilot class was varied in age and included working professionals, unemployed students, veterans, ex-cannabis-convicts, and even a mother and daughter.

“We had a melting pot of personalities and one common denominator: Everyone wanted to get better,” said Robinson.

Down the road, Robinson and Okoro would like to expand to Newark, Atlantic City, and Irvington, where they have already held short workshops.  Eventually the team would like to operate statewide.

“The feeling is indescribable. It’s something that we cherish, something that we’re humbled to be a part of,” said Okoro, “to give minorities and people who are disenfranchised an opportunity to a better quality of life.”

Vincent Onofre is a journalist based in the tri-state area. Raised in Texas, he has found a love for the northeast and New Jersey pizza. His go-to beats include politics and civics, healthcare and education....