A hands-on lab for a growing cannabis industry

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Oakton Community College (OCC) is partnering with a national cannabis company to build a new lab on campus that will train workers for the local and regional emerging cannabis industry.

The Illinois college will develop the lab thanks to a $550,000 donation from PharmaCann, which will also provide $50,000 to establish a scholarship for students in cannabis programs. Scholarship priority will go to students of color, individuals adversely impacted by previous cannabis laws and domestic violence victims.

The lab will be the state’s first cannabis cultivation lab on a college campus, said OCC President Joianne Smith. It is expected to open in January, along with a new credential program, a cannabis cultivation certificate.

“This 12-hour credit program will incorporate hands-on learning in the lab to help students understand the seed-to-harvest growth cycle of cannabis, preparing them for a broader range of opportunities in the cannabis industry, specifically in dispensaries, and cultivation and growth centers,” Smith said during a virtual press conference on Tuesday.

Serving an expanding industry

Students studying in the cultivation lab will receive a hands-on experience in the entire supply chain, from cultivation to production and more. The 2,900-square-foot facility, expected to open in January, will include humidity, temperature, aeration and security controls. The space will include three grow rooms as well as areas for plant drying and waste.

“We are working together to create the next generation of leaders in our growing cannabis industry,” said PharmaCann CEO Brett Novey, who noted the equity component of the program. “We are beginning to develop highly skilled candidates from disproportionately impacted communities.”

OCC launched its cannabis dispensary and patient care specialist program in 2019, said Ileo Lott, the college’s vice president for academic affairs. In 2020, it expanded offerings to include cannabis transportation, logistics and supply chain management. The new lab and certificate program scheduled for 2022 will add toward preparing workers for a rapidly growing and changing industry.

“I think this will help us meet the ever-growing workforce needs, especially regionally,” Lott said.

He noted some studies indicate there are nearly 10,000 cannabis-related jobs in Illinois, ranking the state No. 10 in cannabis jobs. Chicago ranks in the top 10 for cannabis jobs among cities, he said.

Since it started, more than 300 students have enrolled in the OCC programs, Lott said. The programs have awarded more than 70 credentials since 2019.

Adhering to laws

As growing cannabis on college campuses would violate current federal law, students will initially train in the lab with plants that are botanically identical to cannabis, such as hemp and tomato plants, Smith said. OCC has applied for a special state license to grow cannabis on campus. The Illinois Department of Agriculture can issue licenses to up to eight community colleges to enable students to work with, study and grow live cannabis plants in an on-campus cultivation facility.

Later this month, OCC will begin hosting a series of cannabis dispensary license workshops, helping prospective license applicants navigate the state’s licensing process. The virtual sessions are free, thanks to a grant from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, and are geared toward individuals who qualify as social equity applicants.

OCC also has transfer agreement for students in the program with Northern Michigan University (NMU), said Ruth Williams, assistant vice president of academic affairs and dean of curriculum and instruction. Students who complete the cannabis dispensary and patient specialist certificate can transfer to the university if they partner their certificate with an associate degree, she said. Those students can transfer into NMU’s medicinal plant chemistry program, which has a business track.

Similar approaches

Community colleges have served the legal cannabis industry since at least 2017, with more two-year colleges offering related programs since then as a growing number of states legalize marijuana. Two-year colleges around the country also have been creating scholarships for their cannabis programs that focus on adversely affected communities.

The Cannabis Education Center at Holyoke Community College on Monday announced it is offering scholarships to students who enroll in its two-day core cannabis training program this month. The program costs $595, but scholarships cover up to the full amount for qualifying students.

The goal of the scholarships is to “help future cannabis employees and entrepreneurs experience real-world training and education that will bolster their ability to earn viable positions in the cannabis industry,” said Cara Crabb-Burnham, co-founder and education director of Elevate Northeast, which is supporting the scholarships. The scholarships will primary serve students from communities negatively impacted by drug laws that preceded the legalization of marijuana and funded by donations from cannabis businesses, she said.

“Through this scholarship program, we hope to attract students to the cannabis industry who have a passion for cannabis and want to ensure the cannabis space is diverse, equitable and fair,” Crabb-Burnham.

Related article: Colleges respond to ‘green rush’

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
is editor of Community College Daily and serves as publications director for the American Association of Community Colleges.