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New cannabis club at ISU aims to help students network and destigmatize their industry

 Jackie Heim and Grant Winkler from Cannabis Club Redbirds
Ryan Denham
Jackie Heim and Grant Winkler from Cannabis Club Redbirds, a new student organization at Illinois State University.

The founder of a new student group at Illinois State University focused on cannabis says one of her goals is to continue work toward destigmatizing cannabis, even in places where it’s already legal.

The Cannabis Club Redbirds is now up and running, under the leadership of president and founder Jackie Heim. Heim, a nontraditional ISU student, works at a cannabis dispensary in Normal and plans to continue working in the industry after finishing her degree.

Heim created the group, in part, to help students network and to set herself apart as a job candidate after graduation. But another goal, she said, is to destigmatize cannabis.

“I don’t feel that it should be stigmatized. We don’t stigmatize alcohol in the same way. But obviously that’s my feelings. We gotta get other people to feel that way,” Heim said. “So we’re opening up a conversation, making it seem normalized. We’re already a big business. So I feel we’re already there – we need to start acting like it’s a serious business.”

Cannabis is slowly making its way into higher education curriculum in Illinois, including nine community colleges offering certificate or degree-bearing cannabis education programs.

Heim and the group’s vice president, Grant Winkler, are both agriculture business majors. They say cannabis has come up in a few of their classes. But they’re looking to make deeper connections with the cannabis industry alongside like-minded people on campus.

“We’ll start using the club as a way to reach out to companies and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got a whole bunch of people interested in your field. They want to know about jobs (and other things). Could you send out a representative to come talk to us?’” Winkler said.

Both Heim and Winkler want to someday own their own cannabis businesses, although where that happens depends on how cannabis laws continue to change. Both think federal legalization will happen in their lifetimes – but until it does, the legal environment is restrictive.

Heim plans to continue working in the industry to soak up knowledge. She wants to someday open her own cannabis-adjacent firm, like doing consulting or events.

Winkler, who just turned 21 and can now work in the industry himself, would like to one day open his own large-scale, vertically integrated marijuana cultivation business.

“There’s no easy way to get into that. And that’s a big dream, but you gotta start somewhere,” Winkler said. “Endgame is, I hope to control everything from when the plant is planted to the products it goes into.”

Heim and Winkler were disappointed to hear that the Normal Town Council recently rejected plans for the town’s second dispensary, near the Shoppes at College Hills, with traffic congestion and family-friendly stores nearby giving some Normal leaders pause.

Heim said that felt “a little silly, actually,” given restaurants in the area that serve alcohol and pharmacies that dispense medication.

“If we’re really thinking of cannabis as medicine, which for a lot of people it is – recreation or not – it ought to be treated as such,” Heim said. “There’s such a barrier to people being able to get what they need. I see medical patients driving well over an hour to come to our dispensary to get this specific thing they need that works the best for their condition. There are a lot of barriers to that side of it.”

Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.