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.