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Cannabis Courses Offered by More Illinois Universities as Sales of Legal Marijuana and Hemp Products Increase

Considering how quickly the cannabis industry grew in Illinois, DK Lee can’t help but think of South Korea in the 1970s.

Lee, a professor of agronomy at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has spent most of his career studying perennial grasses and other specialty feedstocks.

Just over three years ago, Lee and his colleagues at the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences began discussing how the university could expand its reach into specialty crops while by assessing the interest and needs of Illinois growers.

One crop that kept coming up was cannabis — which includes hemp and marijuana — which has a family history for Lee.

“I remember in 1970, around the time the South Korean government started regulating cannabis, my grandmother was producing hemp fiber,” which was used to make clothes, Lee said. “At the time, nobody knew about marijuana. They cultivated hemp fiber from generation to generation.

Lee sees similarities between when his grandmother grew hemp and present-day Illinois. In South Korea, the practices have been passed down from generation to generation, without formal learning.

“There’s a lot of demand and interest in cannabis and hemp, but we realized there wasn’t necessarily good information out there,” Lee said. “We as a university need to be the ones to start developing and establishing research for the younger generation.”

As the popularity of medical and recreational marijuana grows in Illinois, education about making, growing, and managing cannabis follows. This fall, in addition to the University of Illinois, 11 community colleges across the state — more than ever — are offering courses to prepare students for jobs in the cannabis industry. Courses cover topics such as “Cannabis and the Law” at Oakton Community College in Des Plaines and “Cannabis Flower Production” at UIUC.

Labor needs are immediate as the state issues more licenses to grow and sell marijuana.

“We have heard from employers. They’re looking for an educated workforce that can come in and know what they’re doing right away,” said Daniel Kalef, vice president of higher education at cannabis-based education platform Green Flower. in California.

Kalef’s Industrial Group is working with Moraine Valley Community College in Palos Hills this fall, offering two non-credit courses: an Advanced Manufacturing Officer program and an Advanced Crop Technician program.

“Because it’s not federally legal, anything grown and sold in Illinois must occur in Illinois,” Kalef said. “As the state continues to experience incredible growth, you know that means there are a lot more people who need to grow, manufacture and sell.”

In the summer of 2019, Governor JB Pritzker signed legislation to legalize recreational marijuana, making Illinois the 11th state in the nation to do so at the time.

The first college cannabis course in Illinois soon followed, at Oakton Community College, which developed a curriculum around patient care and medical cannabis. Since 2019, more than 550 students have enrolled in the school’s cannabis education programs.

Colleges are building their cannabis curricula with more courses in botany and growing cannabis plants.

The state now has 110 licensed cannabis dispensaries and as of August had granted 185 additional conditional licenses. This means that the number of stores on the retail side of the business will more than double.

Cannabis sales doubled in 2021 in Illinois compared to 2020, reaching nearly $1.4 billion. The state also nearly doubled its tax collection, to $445.3 million in fiscal year 2021.

Workforce didn’t exactly keep up, however. Job growth has been steady — up 33% in 2021 — but the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that, by 2025, the legal marijuana industry will support 1.5 to 1.75 million jobs in the United States, a more than fourfold increase.

Matt Berry, chief of staff for the Illinois Community College Board, said more colleges are offering credit-based programs.

“These courses are a perfect example of what the bread and butter of community colleges really is, which is to develop programs to meet the demands of the workforce and industry,” said Berry.

Community college instructors have had to work closely with industry to develop a curriculum so that students are trained for business needs, which can range from working in retail to growing plants.

Courses focused on retail and medical health were the first topics to appear in the classroom. This has led to more agriculture-focused programs now offered at schools like UIUC and, recently, Moraine Valley.

A new greenhouse at Olive-Harvey College is home to industrial hemp plants growing alongside okra, pumpkin and other vegetables.  Olive-Harvey recently became the first school in the state to be approved for an accredited associate degree in cannabis studies.

A new greenhouse at Olive-Harvey College is home to industrial hemp plants growing alongside okra, pumpkin and other vegetables. Olive-Harvey recently became the first school in the state to be approved for an accredited associate degree in cannabis studies.

Not all programs focus solely on marijuana. At Olive-Harvey College, part of Chicago City Colleges, students aiming for a certificate in the applied cannabis studies program have access to a new greenhouse where hemp is grown.

Cannabis, hemp and marijuana are all terms for plants in the Cannabaceae family. Hemp contains low levels of the intoxicating phytocannabinoid known as tetrahydrocannabinol or THC. Marijuana has high levels of THC, while hemp has high levels of cannabidiol or CBD, a non-intoxicating phytocannabinoid.

Steve Pappageorge is Executive Director of Community Education, Workforce Development and Government Relations at Moraine Valley. His job is to work with industry leaders to identify and implement a program that matches available jobs.

The campus has partnered with Green Flower to design non-credit courses on growing and making. In a cultivation course, week-long students will learn the botany and germination of cannabis. The next day, they will study the flowering and vegetative cycle of the cannabis plant.

For colleges struggling to attract more students after COVID-19 hurt enrollment, courses could be a decoy for students.

“Obviously there will be individuals who seek to satisfy their curiosity, but now, by offering a course in making and growing, we expect to see students who enjoy working in a lab or working in quality control of the production side,” Pappageorge said. “It’s important from a college perspective that we give people options.

There’s also hope the classes will appeal to older adults looking to change careers, Pappageorge said.

“Young people generally see the cannabis industry very differently than someone who’s maybe 50 or 55, and I think that’s just the nature of the job market,” he said.

As state officials work to expand access and grant more retail licenses, older, non-white entrepreneurs will seek industry education and training, Pappageorge said. “It’s a very, very large audience.”

Akilan Eastern, Dean of Urban Agriculture, waters hemp plants at Olive Harvey College's greenhouse.

Akilah Easter, Dean of Urban Agriculture, waters hemp plants at Olive Harvey College’s greenhouse.

The legal cannabis market in Illinois is still young. Its growth has not always been smooth. The state, for example, attempted to build equity into its licensing program, but when the first round of recreational licensing winners were announced, critics said the program had failed. Several lawsuits followed.

Education officials say they are aware of this and know they could play an important role in leveling the playing field when it comes to fairness.

“That’s really one of the key points in all of this,” Pappageorge said.

One program that aims to do this is called “Still I Rise” at Olive-Harvey in Pullman, a predominantly black neighborhood. The nine-month program provides participants who have been arrested on marijuana charges with training and skills training in cannabis studies. Participants receive free tuition, academic support, childcare assistance, transportation services and a monthly stipend of $1,000.

Olive-Harvey launched its own cannabis certification program in 2019 and just weeks ago became the first school in the state to be approved for an accredited associate degree in cannabis studies.

Participants in the diploma program, which begins in the spring of 2023, will be offered a direct path to jobs as growers, lab technicians, lab managers and quality control employees in the cannabis market. .

“Upward mobility in this industry is unlike any industry I’ve seen,” Kalef said. “When you start an entry-level job in cannabis, we see people go into management in six months. It’s the fastest growing job market in the country, and the fact that it’s still only legal in 37 states is pretty remarkable.

Lee is also optimistic about cannabis programs at the flagship Illinois State University. UIUC launched its Cannabis Certificate Program last year and already offers a handful of courses ranging from Introduction to Horticulture to Cannabis Flower Production, a new course that Lee will teach.

In this course, students will learn to identify cannabis strains and determine the sex of certain plants. They will study which soils to use for indoor or outdoor cultivation, how to prune and manage the plants, and how to harvest the flower.

Although Lee’s grandmother – and many others before her – had been growing hemp fiber for generations, the South Korean government did not regulate hemp until the mid-1970s. In 2018, the country legalized medical marijuana. Two years later, South Korea also declared Gyeongbuk Province a no-regulation zone for hemp. Andong, a town in Gyeongbuk that has traditionally grown hemp fabrics for thousands of years, is now the country’s cannabis epicenter.