Learning How to Grow Medical Marijuana

How yesterday's auto-industry workers are training to become Michigan's legalized-marijuana suppliers

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Roy Ritchie for TIME

Med Grow's Nick Tennant with a marijuana plant at his school

This is what a medical-marijuana class looks like. Twenty-five or so students — men, women, young, middle-aged — listen attentively as an instructor holds up a leafy green plant and runs down the list of nutrients it needs. Nitrogen: stimulates leaf and stem growth. Magnesium: helps leaf structure. Phosphorous: aids in the germination of seeds. Michigan's Med Grow Cannabis College is one of several unaccredited schools to have sprung up in the 14 states and the District of Columbia that have legalized medical use of marijuana. Many of its students suffer from chronic pain. Others are looking to supply those in need of relief.

The Med Grow campus sits across the street from a KFC in Southfield, a relatively prosperous suburb of Detroit. Nearly one-fifth of its 90 or so students are former auto-industry workers. These recent enrollees — and the more than 1,000 people who have completed courses at Med Grow since it opened in September — are betting that studying such topics as bloom cycles and advanced pruning techniques will help them succeed in what may be one of the few growth industries in Michigan, home of the nation's highest unemployment rate: 14%. With medical marijuana fetching as much as $500 for 1 oz. (28 g), providing it to a mere five patients could generate $10,000 a month in sales.

Six-week courses at Med Grow cost $475, and the school is planning to open campuses in Colorado and New Jersey within roughly the next year. Meanwhile, the nation's first marijuana school, the three-year-old Oaksterdam University, has expanded from Oakland, Calif., to locations in Los Angeles and one in Flint, Mich., and may open more.

But as Med Grow founder Nick Tennant can attest, it's not easy being a leader of an emerging industry. Tennant, a very lean, very blond 24-year-old, grew up in the Detroit suburb of Warren and watched the auto-detailing business he started after high school founder along with the region's economy. Then, in 2008, a surprising majority of Michigan voters approved a measure to allow people with cancer, Crohn's disease, AIDS and other ailments to apply for state-issued cards to grow or obtain marijuana. He recalls thinking, "You could sit there and watch the industry evolve or step into the game."

So he wrote up a business plan for a marijuana-growers school and approached his car-detailing clients as potential investors. Many thought it was a joke, but enough took him seriously. He declines to say how much money he raised.

The next step was finding a landlord. One told him flatly, "I don't want to take on the risk." To which Tennant replied, "If you want to let your building sit vacant, go for it." He eventually settled on 5,000 sq. ft. (465 sq m) in an office building in Southfield, a half hour's drive north of downtown Detroit.

The first thing you notice when you walk into Med Grow is the pungent smell of marijuana. One of the school's two grow rooms showcases a single massive marijuana plant that, in terms of height and canopy, is about the size of a kitchen table.

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