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Illinois colleges expand cannabis studies

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When thinking about how fast the Illinois cannabis industry has grown, DK Lee can’t help but think of South Korea in the 1970s.

Lee, a professor of agricultural engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has spent most of his career studying perennial herbs and other specialized raw materials.

Just over three years ago, Lee and colleagues in the College of Agriculture, Consumer and Environmental Sciences began discussing how UIUC could expand its reach into specialty crops while measuring the interests and needs of Illinois farmers.

Hemp was one crop that kept emerging, a special crop with a family history to me. Hemp and marijuana plants are both types of cannabis.

Colleges are building their own cannabis studies programs with more classes in botany and cannabis cultivation. Hemp and marijuana plants are both types of cannabis. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

“I remember in 1970, at the time the South Korean government started regulating cannabis, my grandmother was producing hemp fibers,” he told me, “which was used to make clothing.” “At the time, no one knew about marijuana. They were growing hemp fibers from generation to generation.”

Looking back now, Lee sees parallels between the era when his grandmother grew hemp and present-day Illinois. In South Korea, the practices have been passed down through generations, but there has been no formal learning about it. Here, farmers are just beginning to scratch the surface in hemp production and management.

“There is a lot of demand and interest in cannabis and hemp out there, but we realized that there is not necessarily any good information,” Lee told me. “We as a university need to start developing and creating some research for the younger generation.”

As medical and recreational marijuana becomes increasingly popular in Illinois, education in the manufacture, cultivation, and management of cannabis is closely followed. This fall, in addition to the University of Illinois, 11 community colleges across the state – more than ever before – will offer courses designed to prepare students for jobs in the cannabis industry. The list of courses is becoming increasingly complex, from “Cannabis and the Law” at Oakton Community College to “Cannabis Flower Production” at UIUC.

cannabis studies
Rows of plants grow inside Revolution Global’s cannabis cultivation center in Delavan, Illinois, in 2020. Medical health courses focused on retail were the first topics to feature in college cannabis programs, but Illinois campuses are beginning to offer more pathways that Focus on agriculture. Charles Rex Arbogast/The Associated Press

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

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

The Kalef Industry Group is partnering with Moraine Valley Community College in the southern Palos Hills suburbs this fall by offering two non-accredited courses: the Advanced Manufacturing Agent Program and the Advanced Agriculture Technician Program.

“Because it’s not legal at the federal level, everything that is grown and sold in Illinois has to happen in Illinois,” Califf said. “While the state continues to see amazing growth, you know that means there are a lot of people that need to grow, manufacture and sell.”

The rise in cannabis education

In the summer of 2019, Governor J.B. Pritzker Signing legislation to legalize recreational marijuanamaking Illinois the eleventh state in the country to do so at the time.

The Soon I followed the first college course in Illinois on cannabis at Oakton Community College. The college has developed a program around patient care and medical cannabis, and since 2019, more than 550 students have enrolled in the school’s cannabis education programs.

cannabis studies
Customers queued up to buy recreational marijuana on the first day Illinois approved dispensary sales on January 1, 2020. Sales of adult-use cannabis, which includes marijuana and CBD, doubled in one year, from 2020 to 2021. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Today, the state has 110 licensed dispensaries, and as of August, it has granted an additional 185 conditional licenses to open. That means the retail side of the business will double — and soon.

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

However, the workforce hasn’t quite kept up with that.

Job growth has held steady (up 33% in 2021), but the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that by 2025, the legal marijuana industry will support 1.5 million to 1.75 million jobs in the United States, a more than fourfold increase in the United States. Total current employment of the sector.

More colleges are offering credit-based programs, said Matt Perry, chief of staff for the Illinois Community College Board. “These courses are an excellent example of what is the bread and butter of community colleges, which are developing programs to meet the demands of the workforce and industry,” Berry said.

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

Health courses focusing on retail and medical were the first topic to appear in the classroom. This eventually gave way to the agriculture-focused programs now offered at schools like UIUC and, most recently, Moraine Valley.

Not all programs focus on marijuana alone. At Olive Harvey College, for example, which is part of the City Colleges of Chicago, students aiming for a degree in the Applied Cannabis Studies program can access a newly opened greenhouse that grows hemp. Hemp, hemp, and marijuana are all terms for plants of the cannabis family. Hemp – one of the world’s most diverse plants – contains low levels of the sugar cannabinoid known as Tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Marijuana contains high levels of THC, while hemp contains high levels of non-intoxicating cannabinoids (CBD).

cannabis studies
Easter waters a strain of cannabis called Quick Kush inside the greenhouse at Olive Harvey College. Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Steve Papagorge is the Executive Director of Community Education, Workforce Development, and Government Relations at Maureen Valley. His job is to work with industry leaders to define and implement a curriculum that matches the positions available.

The campus has partnered with Green Flower to design non-credit courses in agriculture and manufacturing. In the agriculture class, for example, for a week students will learn cannabis botany and germination; The next day, they will study the flowering and vegetative cycle of the cannabis plant.

For colleges struggling to bring in more students after COVID-19 hit enrollment, courses can be a new enticement for students of all backgrounds.

“Obviously there will be individuals looking to satisfy their curiosity, but now by offering the Manufacturing and Agriculture course, we expect to see students who want to work in a lab or work in quality control on the production side,” said Papagorge. “It’s important from a college perspective that we give people choices.”

There is also hope that the courses will appeal to seniors looking to make a career change, Papagorge said. “Younger people view the cannabis industry a lot differently than anyone who is 50 or 55 years old, and I think that is the nature of the job market,” he said.

As the state attempts to expand access and grant more retail licenses, older, non-white entrepreneurs will seek education and training in the industry.

“It’s a very, very broad audience.”

The country’s “fastest growing labor market”

The Illinois Cannabis Market Is Still Young, Expansion Has Happened Not always smoothly. The state, for example, tried to incorporate royalty into its licensing program, but when the first round of entertainment licensing winners were announced, critics said the program had failed. Several lawsuits followed.

Education leaders, including Pappageorge in Moraine Valley, understand this and know they can play a big role in leveling the playing field when it comes to equity.

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

One of the must-see shows will be Olive Harvey’s “I Still Rise” in the predominantly black neighborhood of Pullman. The nine-month program will provide participants who have been arrested on marijuana-related charges with formal education and professional training in cannabis studies.

Participants receive free tuition, academic support, childcare assistance, transportation services, and a monthly stipend of $1,000 as part of the program.

Olive Harvey started her own cannabis certification program in 2019, and just a few weeks ago, she became the first school in the state to earn an accredited college degree in cannabis studies.

cannabis studies
Olive Harvey’s new greenhouse features faux hemp plants along with vegetable plants like okra and pumpkin. Olive Harvey recently became the first school in the state to be approved for the degree of Certified Associate in Cannabis Studies Manuel Martinez / WBEZ

Program participants will be offered direct pathways to positions such as farmers, laboratory technicians, laboratory managers, and quality control personnel in the cannabis market. This degree program will begin in the spring of 2023.

“The rise in this industry is unlike any I’ve seen,” Califf said. “When you start an entry-level job in cannabis, we see people get 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 amazing.”

Lee is optimistic about the cannabis programs at Illinois State University’s leading university, too. UIUC launched its cannabis certification program last year and already offers quite a few classes ranging from Introduction to Horticulture (HORT 100) all the way to Cannabis Flower Production (CPSC 499), a new course that Lee will teach in the fall.

In this course, students will learn how to identify cannabis strains and how to determine the sex of specific plants. They study what types of cultivated soils to use for indoor versus outdoor cultivation, how to prune and manage plants and how to harvest the flower.

Although Lee’s grandmother – and the people who preceded her – have been growing hemp fibers for generations, the South Korean government did not regulate hemp until the mid-1970s. In 2018, the state legalized medical marijuana.

Two years later, South Korea also made Gyeongbok Province a cannabis regulatory-free zone. Andong, a city in Gyeongbok that has traditionally grown hemp fabrics for thousands of years, is now a cannabis hub in the country.

It was a slow burn. Some things take time.

Patrick Philippine is a freelance writer based in Chicago.

Grow guide for marijuana beginners.
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