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Cannabis education programs are sprouting up at Illinois colleges

Beyond/Hello cannabis dispensary
Dana Vollmer
WGLT file
Employees at the 2021 opening day for the Beyond/Hello cannabis dispensary in Bloomington.

Taking advantage of a green but growing industry, community colleges across Illinois are rolling out cannabis education programs that can lead to good-paying jobs at marijuana dispensaries.

There are currently nine Illinois junior colleges offering certificate or degree-bearing cannabis education programs, according to Matt Berry, chief of staff for the Illinois Community College Board (ICCB) in Springfield. Courses can cover everything from plant cultivation to retail management aspects of the burgeoning cannabis industry, which accounted for $445.3 million in tax revenue for Illinois in 2021. Other higher learning institutions, such as Illinois Central College (ICC) in Illinois, offer free, non-credit bearing continuing education courses in cannabis education in partnership with local dispensaries.

“These (credit-bearing) programs are primarily located in the Chicagoland region, but they also have programs at Southwestern Illinois College in Belleville, Illinois Valley Community College, and Kishwaukee College. A couple of colleges, such as ICC, offer non-credit programs through their continuing education and workforce departments,” said Berry, adding that the programs vary in content from institution to institution.

“They’re across the board; there are programs in the production and cultivation of cannabis on the agriculture side, and we also have programs on the dispensary operations and dispensary technician side. There are also a couple of programs in transportation and logistics, on the supply chain and management side.”

By 2025, the legal marijuana industry will support 1.5 million to 1.75 million jobs in the United States, according to the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. The projection represents a more than fourfold increase in the cannabis workforce.

Interest in cannabis ed yet to peak

Since most Illinois community college cannabis education programs are still in their infancy, it’s difficult for the ICBB to track statewide registration numbers, according to Berry. The first junior college cannabis education program in Illinois was offered by Oakton Community College beginning in the fall of 2019.

Starting in 2023, Olive-Harvey, a small, two-year college on Chicago’s far south side, will become the first community college to offer a full associate’s applied science degree in cannabis studies. Berry and the ICCB expect an influx of demand and supply for such programs at more Illinois community colleges in the coming years, as the number of conditional cannabis retail licenses granted by the state — currently standing at around 185 — continues to increase.

“Every couple of months we get a request for a new (cannabis ed) program, so I think there will be more programs as the industry grows. It’s certainly an issue where community colleges are able to be nimble and respond to employer demands,” Berry said. “Most, if not all of these programs are partnered with dispensaries or the industry in some way, so they are really good examples of how the community college system works with business and industry to meet training needs.”

ICC program offers cannabis industry overview

Interest in the cannabis educational courses and workshops offered at ICC’s Peoria and East Peoria campuses ranks “sky high” in terms of popularity and enrollment, according to Kristan Creek, coordinator of corporate and community education for the two-year college.

“We released the information in May for our first two cannabis education courses in June and October, and they filled up within two days,” she said. “The response has been really great.”

ICC’s fledgling cannabis education program was seeded in 2021 through a state social equity funding grant provided by Trinity Compassionate Care Center, which currently operates two dispensaries in Peoria. The grant was extended to ICC specifically to develop coursework that would prepare students for a career in the cannabis industry.

“Dispensary work in Illinois is a relatively new industry, and there are a number of new skill sets that come with that. We worked through the fall of 2021 and the spring of 2022 with a curriculum development instructional team, along with people in the field and community leaders, and we developed a five-section course that focused on preparing people to work within a dispensary,” Creek said.

ICC’s five-section, in-person cannabis course, “Cannabis Dispensary Agent Operations,” focuses on cannabis plant basics and products; history, myths and stigmas of cannabis; laws, regulations and operations; supply chain and inventory management, and pathways into the cannabis industry.

“The laws and regulations are quite important if you’re going to work in this industry. Inventory management is very important because there is a certain type of inventory management system that the state requires dispensaries to utilize,” said Creek.

Two other courses, “Cannabis Conversations for the Consumer” and “Cannabis Conversations for Healthcare Professionals,” are also offered by ICC instructors Kelsey Bartlow, MPH; Anita Burnett, RN; and Stephanie Arthalony. In addition, six online cannabis educational workshops include an overview of the cannabis industry, an examination of popular retail cannabis products, cannabis regulations, dispensary operations, the medical cannabis industry, and dispensary customer service.

“There are a lot of opportunities in the cannabis field right now,” Creek said. “There are jobs available in marketing and business and sales. It’s a booming industry with lots of opportunities.”

Those who complete ICC’s cannabis education courses — which, incidentally, are interlaced with Greater Peoria Essential Abilities and Knowledge (G-PEAK) career attribute principles — should be able to find work with Trinity or another company in the cannabis industry right away. Entry-level positions in the cannabis industry currently are paying $15 to $17 per hour, while some employers are offering up to $75,000 per year with benefits for management positions, according to Creek.

Because ICC’s cannabis education program is funded through a social equity grant, enrollment in all of the program’s three courses and six educational workshops is currently free of charge to the public. Registration for spring 2023 courses and workshops, in addition to more information on programming, can be found on the community college’s website (www.icc.edu) under the “community education” link.

U of I debuts cannabis production certificate

Community colleges aren’t the only higher learning institutions to recognize the need for cannabis education courses.

Recently, the University of Illinois joined the state’s community colleges in offering cannabis education courses when its Department of Crop Sciences announced it would offer a four-part Cannabis Production and Management certificate program. Focusing on the production aspects of the cannabis industry, the U of I’s online program is designed to help enrollees build a foundation of cannabis production skills from classification to physiology to production management, along with an understanding of the cannabis classification system. Courses include segments on Cannabis Classification and Management, Cannabis Phytochemistry and Cannabis Flower Production.

“We cover classification and taxonomy, which is critical for proper production of any given cannabis product. How you grow and manage diverse varieties depends on whether you’re targeting THC for medical or recreational marijuana, for non-psychoactive compounds like CBD, or for hemp fiber, protein, and oils,” said DK Lee, program instructor and director of the crop science department’s online courses.

Estimated cost of the semester-long U of I Cannabis Production and Management program is $4,576. More information on this certificate program can be found on the U of I Department of Crop Sciences website.

Western Illinois University offers minors in cannabis production, and cannabis and culture.

Tim Alexander is a correspondent for WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.