CHICAGO - The new cannabis course at Oakton Community College is far from the blow-off class one might imagine. Students don't touch marijuana inside the classroom in Des Plaines. No one grows a plant, rolls a joint or smokes a bong. Instead, they learn about molecular biology, drug laws and treating terminal illness.
"This is pretty intense," one student commented.
Federal law prohibits college personnel from handling marijuana directly. Instead, Illinois' first and only community college certificate course in cannabis emphasizes technical and practical knowledge meant to help students get a job in the field.
Students who complete the seven-course curriculum will be trained as cannabis dispensary and patient care specialists, designed to qualify them to work in either medical or recreational settings. Of the first 100 students taking the course, about 20 hope to complete it this semester, in time to start working in the field when commercial marijuana sales become legal under state law in Illinois on Jan. 1, 2020.
The course consists of 12 credit hours, including instruction in business and dispensary operations. To decide what information to include, school leaders consulted with medical marijuana officials, who implied that stoners need not apply.
The students in class last week formed a fairly diverse group, from freshmen teens to grandmothers to midcareer professionals.
"The curriculum is driven by what the industry needs, what they're looking for in an employee," said Ileo Lott, vice president for academic affairs. "They're looking for people who know how to work with chronically ill patients and understand what they need. They're not looking for enthusiasts who love to use the product."
The new state law that legalized weed also provided for eight community colleges to certify courses in cannabis careers. But that process will likely take until next school year for classes to begin. Unlike the Oakton course, those programs are meant to cover how to grow cannabis commercially.
Officials at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale also hope to offer a 30-hour certificate in indoor plant production that would not focus exclusively on cannabis, but would include courses in cannabis. By law, the school may not grow pot, but it has grown its first crop of hemp, which is the same species of plant but without the THC that gets users high.
Federal law prohibits funding for any higher university that does not take steps to prohibit marijuana possession - along with alcohol abuse - on campus. As a result, school officials don't plan to allow marijuana plants on campus. Instead, industry officials are looking into offering internships or workshops at licensed cultivation centers, said Pam Althoff, head of the Cannabis Business Association of Illinois.
The business association also hopes to hold its first jobs fair at Oakton in October, with cannabis and related companies looking to recruit new workers.
Various aspects of the cannabis business are taught by instructors with expertise in their fields. Attorney and pharmacist Erica Lindsay teaches legal matters, such as how patients and workers can qualify legally for medical dispensaries.
Dr. Sarah Mann, who said she has certified about 200 patients for medical cannabis at her clinic in Barrington, teaches the medical effects of cannabis. During class last week, while some students tried to keep up with her description of bone cells known as osteoblasts and osteoclasts, Mann assured them that such Latin terms merely name a process they probably already understand.
Mann explained how the active ingredients in cannabis such as THC, which gets users high, and CBD, marketed for anti-inflammatory effects, can help treat various medical conditions. Research has shown cannabis can be effective to treat nausea, pain, muscle stiffness and epilepsy.
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While the full effects of the drug remain unknown pending more research, Mann cautioned that pot is not a cure-all. For instance, it may help reduce pain for cancer patients, she said, and has shown anti-cancer properties in the lab, but has not been proved to reverse the disease.
"Cannabis reduces effectiveness of chemotherapy," Mann said. "It is very unethical to give such questionable treatment when there's a known more effective treatment."
One instructor with experience in the field, Steve Fix, who works at GreenGate dispensary in Chicago's Rogers Park community, explained what it's like dealing with patients with serious, even fatal illnesses.
"It's an intake process, just like with any doctor," Fix said. "You discuss what's going on, if they're in pain, if they have anxiety, what product would best manage that. We want people who leave our program to realistically speak to different types of illness and weigh that against different types of cannabis."
Tuition for the course is $1,635 for Illinois residents, Oakton officials said.
Some budtenders, as dispensary workers sometimes are called, had no previous experience working with sick people, so the course is structured to build empathy and understanding of conditions ranging from Parkinson's to migraines.
Students cited a range of reasons for attending the class. Angelyn Anderson, an instructor in humanities at Oakton, hopes to help people of color like herself get into the field. She noted that the high price of entry, including licensing fees costing tens of thousands of dollars, will prohibit many who hope to participate.
"You've been sending people to jail for years, now you're going to make money off it," Anderson said. "How do we turn it around so it's a benefit?"
Suburban student Jason Reese said he had worked in the pharmaceutical industry until getting laid off in July as part of a corporate downsizing. He volunteers at a dispensary now and hopes for a new career path in a growing field.
Budtender jobs average around $14 per hour in Illinois, while a dispensary manager averages around $53,000, according to job site Indeed.com. Reese hopes that hourly workers will become salaried employees as the field expands and professionalizes.
Josette LaMonica, a mother of three from Arlington Heights who previously worked in insurance, plans to work at a dispensary. She said she's seen cannabis help friends with serious medical conditions, and was surprised at the extent of medical and legal expertise involved.
"It's going to be a competitive field," she said, "and I think the certificate will give me a leg up."
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