Cannabis College Classes Cropping Up In Illinois | WBEZ
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Cannabis On The Syllabus In Illinois College Classrooms

Dr. Sarah Mann had just opened a medical marijuana clinic in the wealthy suburb of Barrington earlier this year when she decided her skills in this field could be useful to more than just her patients. So she reached out to Oakton Community College.

“I said something along the lines of, ‘I’m a cannabis physician and I’m really interested in teaching and wondering if you guys are putting the program together?” Mann said. “That led me here to be a cannabis professor.”

Mann is one of three instructors hired by Oakton Community College in Des Plaines to teach as part of the school’s new Cannabis Dispensary and Patient Care certificate program, which trains students for jobs in medical marijuana dispensaries. The for-credit program is the first of its kind in Illinois.

The school is leading the way among higher education institutions, but they could see more community colleges jump into this training arena on the medical or recreational side, which becomes legal Jan. 1.

About 100 students at Oakton are enrolled in the program, where they’re learning about marijuana policy, the history of the plant, dispensary operations and which strains of marijuana could help with various medical issues. Those skills will help them give advice and recommendations to customers who walk into a dispensary looking for help.

Classes meet twice a week at night. On a recent evening, students gave presentations on research projects that looked at the socialization of medical cannabis for the older population and cannabinoids in dementia care.

It’s a diverse group of students. Some already work in health care. Others are looking for a career change to work in a dispensary. There are younger students, too. Some are medical marijuana users themselves.

Oakton's leadership hopes this program will better train people to help patients as they navigate their medical marijuana needs.

“When I originally talked to dispensary owners, they said what they were getting from employees was what they called ‘weed enthusiasts,’” said Ileo Lott, vice president of student affairs. “We wanted to provide a more educated and more patient centered approach.”

Pot class
Kate McGee/WBEZ
Students in Oakton Community College's cannabis dispensary and patient care program are learning things like which strains of marijuana could help with various medical issues. That way they can give advice and recommendations to customers.

“Careers in cannabis” programs

As Illinois gears up to the Jan. 1 date for legalized recreational pot, more community colleges are expected to join Oakton in offering classes.

The new law includes a pilot program for eight community colleges to create “careers in cannabis” certificate programs. Schools can start submitting applications to receive a license in early 2020.

They won’t just be allowed to teach about the cannabis industry, but would also be able to grow marijuana on campus.

Licensed community colleges would be able to grow up to 50 marijuana plants at any time. However, growing cannabis on campus would violate the federal Drug Free Schools and Campus Act, since it's still illegal federally. It could put their federal financial aid at risk. It’s likely they’ll try to work around that issue by partnering with those who already grow or do training off site. They could also use hemp or even tomato plants.

Efforts at four-year universities

While the recreational marijuana law is letting community colleges lead the way in training and education, some four-year public universities don’t want to be left behind.

Last year, Southern Illinois University at Carbondale announced it was working to offer a certificate in plan production that would include classes in marijuana cultivation.

And late last month, a few hundred people gathered on a rainy Saturday morning at Chicago State University for a “Cannabis Expo.”

CSU held the event to connect people in the neighboring South Side community with the industry. State Sen. Elgie Sims, D-Chicago, was one of many black lawmakers who came out to address the crowd.

“You are either at the table or you are on the menu,” he said. “We want to be at the table … We wanted to make sure that communities that were ravished by the war on drugs have the ability to benefit.”

Next week, CSU will start its own cannabis certificate program. While it does not count for college credit and is not geared toward a specific job, CSU leaders says it’s an entry point for people looking for a way into this growing industry.

Those who work in the industry say any education in the field is helpful.

Kate McGee covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @WBEZeducation and @McGeeReports.

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