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Illinois colleges, universities partnering with cannabis companies on classes

Hundreds of rows of green cannabis plants are seen inside a large, brightly lit warehouse
Charles Rex Arbogast
Associated Press
Rows of cannabis plants growing at Revolution Global's cannabis cultivation center in Delavan, Ill., in 2020. Retail-focused and medicinal health courses were the first subject matters to pop up in college classrooms but campuses are starting to offer more agriculture-centered programs as workforce demands increase.

A cannabis career? More Illinois colleges are offering classes to meet the growing demand for educated pot workers

It took Illinois’ new cannabis industry less than three years to become a billion dollar business.

When marijuana was legalized for recreational use in 2020, demand for the product and people qualified to work with it soared. As the industry continues growing, companies are looking to hire people who have some cannabis knowledge – and more of those businesses are even sponsoring college courses.

That workaround is crucial since marijuana is still federally illegal, and there’s a risk schools that receive government funding could lose it by working with the actual product on campus.

Spoon River College in Macomb launched its cannabis horticulture course in 2022 with help from Nature’s Grace and Wellness, a company based in nearby Vermont, Ill. Nature’s Grace approached Spoon River about starting a course and provided a $100,000 grant to help students offset the roughly $3,000 cost.

The company existed for years as a medical cannabis provider, but the size of the operation more than quadrupled when recreational cannabis became legal. Tim O’Hern, the company’s chief operating officer, said he knows students who enroll in the course will take it seriously, and that’s good for future hires.

“It demonstrates a lot to us that, hey, that person is specifically seeking out a job in cannabis and they have a degree of passion and interest in the field,” he said.

Ascend Wellness Holdings, a multi-state operator with a large grow facility in Barry, Ill., works with Western Illinois University in Macomb.

“You can be the Rockefeller of cannabis right now if you position yourself correctly,” said Shelby Hennings, an assistant professor of sustainable horticulture at Western, which recently launched a cannabis production minor.

“I think anybody that gets in and does that, especially with a degree that gives them a calling card to say, hey, I’ve got something more to offer than the standard person, that’s what this program gives them.”

People have a lot of class choices in the Western program. Horticulture 357, Cannabis Production, is one of three core classes students have to take. But they can also choose from electives such as hydroponic plant production and crop biotechnology.

The production minor also requires a three-hour practicum, where students volunteer at facilities like those at Ascend or Nature’s Grace. Hennings said the idea is to integrate students into an actual operation as they’re getting ready to graduate with the skills the cannabis industry wants.

“Here is one right now, trained, and you can cherry pick these people,” Hennings imagines telling potential employers.

Sam Piscitello of west suburban Bartlett hopes to be one of those people. The 24-year-old is one of Henning’s students and, like many, said he grew up hearing about the ills of marijuana without hearing of its potential benefits.

Once Piscitello saw the benefits, he knew he wanted to be part of the industry.

“I just hope people actually are in this industry for the plant as well,” he said. “It’s not just the money – people have to care about the quality of the plant instead of just pushing out product.”

Piscitello was considering well-known cannabis programs at colleges in Michigan and California but chose Western to stay closer to home.

Western also offers a cannabis and culture minor in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Students in the program have to take a class called the Anthropological Study of Cannabis, and can choose from electives such as Contemporary Moral Problems; From Magic Mushrooms to Big Pharma; and Religion, Magic and Shamanism. The program is also planning a study abroad trip to Amsterdam in 2025.

Dan Schmalshof of Macomb, a member of the Illinois Independent Craft Growers Association, has been working to open his own craft grow facility while continuing to work with educators at Western and Spoon River.

“I would like to train people in this industry, whether it be on the dispensary side, or the craft side or the grow side or horticulture side, because I do have access to people like Shelby Hennings,” he said.

Elsewhere in the state, Southern Illinois University has a Cannabis Science Center available to students in the intensive controlled-environment plant production program; the University of Illinois has a cannabis production and management certificate at its main campus in Urbana; City Colleges of Chicago offers a certificate in Applied Cannabis Studies; and Joliet Junior College just launched certificate programs to gain cannabis job skills.

Despite the delays and setbacks that have beset Illinois’ cannabis industry, it’s been booming.

The state reported more than $1 billion in revenue in 2022 and officials are confident those numbers will improve this year with more dispensaries slowly opening, along with smaller operations introducing small batch, possibly more expensive “craft” products into the market.

Cannabis sales dipped in January and February this year, but March revenue numbers from the Illinois Department of Professional and Financial Regulation show a slight rebound – even from out-of-state buyers, some of whom no longer need to cross the river from St. Louis to get to dispensaries in Sauget, Collinsville or Fairview Heights.

Alex Degman is a Statehouse reporter with WBEZ.