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Al Unwin (left), associate dean of Niagara College's School of Environmental and Horticultural Studies, and Denzil Rose, a student in Niagara College's Greenhouse Technician program are shown in a handout photo.

Handout/Niagara College/THE CANADIAN PRESS

College and university graduates will be able to earn a certificate in cannabis production starting next fall, when Niagara College will launch Canada's first accredited program in the field.

The program will begin months after the deadline imposed by the federal government for legalizing production, distribution and sale of the weed that is eventually expected to generate $8-billion in annual sales. With regulations not yet in place for legalized marijuana, the program may have to shift with politics.

"We heard that the licensed producers need highly skilled, well-trained individuals who know more than how to grow two or three plants in a room somewhere," said Al Unwin, the associate dean of Niagara College's School of Environmental and Horticultural Studies. "They need a graduate who knows how to create a healthy crop in a very large facility and a graduate who is aware of the regulatory reality," he said.

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Some of the courses offered in the eight-month program include cannabis production, plant science, laws and regulations, and postharvest treatment.

At $10,000, the tuition is a substantial investment, but the college says it will prepare students to work in a booming industry. The school will accept 25 students.

Several North American institutions already have similar cannabis-focused courses, including Kwantlen Polytechnic University in British Columbia and a less formal 14-week program at Oaksterdam University, in Oakland, Calif. But Niagara College – which has 9,000 full-time students – is the first postsecondary institution to fire up a year-long program promising to train graduates for jobs in the industry.

Niagara's program was developed over the past year and approved within a month by the Postsecondary Accountability Branch, a division of Ontario's Ministry of Advanced Education and Skills Development.

"This is really what colleges were set up to do 50 years ago, to respond to a clear human capital labour market need," Mr. Unwin said.

It is not clear whether the federal government will meet its July 1, 2018, deadline to legalize recreational marijuana. The Liberals have introduced a bill, but they are still facing questions from the Canadian Medical Association and political opposition from the Conservatives. A recent Globe and Mail investigation found that questions about oversight and quality control among some of Canada's 58 licensed medical marijuana producers continue.

When recreational cannabis is legalized, it is expected to generate sales of as much as $8-billion and up to $22-billion when associated industries, such as marketing, security and tourism, are counted.

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"We are looking at an industry that is just at the beginning now," said Jordan Sinclair, the director of communications for Canopy Growth Corp., Canada's largest licensed producer, which operates out of a facility in Smith Falls, Ont.

"We were 50 employees and now we are 600 and we don't expect that to slow down," Mr. Sinclair said.

Dozens of jobs are advertised on Canopy's website, from Web and mobile application managers to merger specialists to greenhouse service technicians. Having industry-specific knowledge could be a benefit, Mr. Sinclair said.

"It's interesting to see the type of people who have gone that extra step and taken the initiative to study in the cannabis field," Mr. Sinclair said.

Still, many of the skills and knowledge required by the cannabis industry are common to other sectors, particularly pharmaceuticals, which face similar regulations, he added.

Niagara College says licensed producers in the region will help with its curriculum development. In their second semester, students will do a co-op work placement. But if students are hoping to gain admission, informal experience producing the plant won't be considered. Instead, the school is looking for students with a background in agribusiness, agricultural sciences, environmental science/resource studies, horticulture or natural sciences.

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"We want people who have gone through an academic program, who are properly trained, who understand that when you scale up you are going to be facing challenges," Mr. Unwin said.

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