By Deana Elhit, Editor-in-Chief
Since the legalization of the recreational use of cannabis in Illinois on Jan. 1, 2020, the rapidly expanding cannabis dispensary industry has turned into a billion-dollar industry.
Immediate interest quickly turned into numbers of employees, though a lack of training became an issue. This situation led Moraine Valley to create the Cannabis Retail Specialist program, training students to provide them “employment or advancement opportunities in a licensed retail cannabis dispensary,” according to Moraine Valley’s website.
In 2019, John Sullivan, vice president and legal counsel of Cresco Labs, approached his father, John Sullivan, emeritus professor of communications and literature, about creating the program. Cresco Labs plays a major part in retailing for the growing distribution and sales of cannabis-related products, said Steve Pappageorge, executive director of corporate, community and continuing education.
“It was just a good cultural fit between the companies, college and the individuals involved,” he said.
The elder Sullivan reached out to Margaret Lehner, vice president for Institutional Advancement, to explore training opportunities at Moraine.
“Moraine Valley is always looking to expand its programs to meet economic needs on a local, regional, and national scene,” Lehner said. “This opportunity offered the ability of both short-term occupational training and certificate programs.”
The federal government still classifies cannabis as a federally controlled Schedule I substance under the Controlled Substances Act. Therefore, financial aid would not cover the program.
To make the program more financially available for students, it was created as a short-term certificate to provide a quality education while not being burdened by significant costs, Pappageorge said.
Lehner consulted with Sylvia Jenkins, president of Moraine Valley, who was enthusiastic about the opportunities. The board of trustees agreed to the cannabis program’s start up, and a committee began working with Jason Nelson, senior vice president at Cresco Labs. His team worked alongside Pappageorge to provide access to industry experts and subject matter to design, critique, and review the curriculum before announcing the program’s launch in fall 2020.
“We felt it was important to have a curriculum addressing considerations not just from product knowledge or understanding the effects of cannabis on the human body, but also understanding laws and regulations as it relates to the individual working in that space,” said Pappageorge. “To better prepare them for a job.”
“Crestco has been a wonderful partner in helping us launch the program,” he said.“They were willing to spend time with our facility side by side and helping them, asking the right questions, and identifying the right components to be included in each of the courses.”
Due to the immediate demand, Moraine Valley offered a non-credit training program, which then developed into the credited cannabis certificate program, says Lehner.
Pappageorge said it’s not just the retail process that offers career opportunities in the cannabis market: “There’s the whole cultural aspect, manufacturing, technology, security, law enforcement.”
For example, Pappageorge recalls a student in the heating and air conditioning program was in high demand by cannabis organizations that have operations in places where cannabis plants grow to maintain a consistent warm temperature.
The cannabis industry has various components related to the supply chain, such as cultivators, lab testing, dispensaries, packaging, transportation, marketing, and more, Lehner explains. “Additional programs within the legal scope of educational institutions in support of the industry are probable.”
“Once the program was approved, the research and the background collaboration with our industry partner started,” said Diana Medina, program coordinator and activity director.
A cannabis advisory council was recently created which meets several times a year with industry experts. In the last few weeks, a meeting occurred that included professionals from companies and organizations that have advocated towards legalizing and normalizing the industry, Medina said. Organizations like Cresco Labs, Chicago NORML, Illinois Equity Staffing, Supercritical, LLC, and The Cannabis Community are part of the advisory board. Including individuals that are venture capital firms who are financing growth and start up companies within the space, Pappageorge said.
“Our faculties bring in guest speakers to talk to our students about the opposites that are in the industry but also the educational background and experience that our students need, and how to navigate networks to obtain professional skills,” Medina said. “We’re doing a great job right now with being very cautious and strategic about who we pair up with our board and who our guest speakers are,”
Medina also keeps close ties with Illinois Women of Cannabis and has joined their subcommittee, which is a professional development and networking organization to support and sophisticate the industry, says Medina. She helped to create a membership program for women to learn from industry professional mentors.
You have to recognize there are not too many industries that can flip the switch one day and turn into a billion dollar industry within the year. Cannabis did that.”Criminal justice professor David O’Connor
“We have a very diverse group of individuals by feedback and into what the curriculum should be, what the changes are, other things we should consider,” Pappageorge said. “We look to either expand or keep the program up to date. The laws change regularly too, you have to stay abreast of the changes in the state of Illinois so council helps us do that as well.”
The program can be completed in one semester, though it’s recommended for two, taking three classes per semester. The program attracted students into coming into the industry. A total of 195 students have enrolled into the program since last year.
“Our courses typically talk about the variable so that if an individual wanted to work perhaps in the medical dispensary versus retail adult use dispensary, they could,” Pappageorge said. “They would understand how the body absorbs and processes cannabis-related products and also understand what one of the symptoms are with some individuals that might be exceeding the recommended dose.”
David O’Connor, assistant professor of criminal justice and professor of cannabis laws and regulations, had worked as a prosecutor for Cook County state’s attorney office as a supervisor in the narcotics bureau for 20 years. Since then, he has been working in private practice for over the last 15 years, being a practicing attorney for 35 years.
When asked how his experience being an attorney has shaped the way O’Connor teaches his laws and regulations course, he said, “I’ve seen it from a lot of different angles. I prosecuted these crimes, defended individuals, I charge with these crimes. I’ve seen what it could do and negative aspects of any type of drug abuse.
“I try to look at it quite objectively having seen and read the research regarding how helpful it’s been to certain people and also recognizing how negatively it’s influenced others. So I try to bring that across and make sure those points are made clear anytime I’m teaching to a new group of students.”
Some students’ interest differentiated from one another regarding why they use cannabis, whether for medical reasons or recreational use. “There’s ongoing studies and research that seems to suggest that it’s extremely helpful in certain types of diseases and modalities,” O’Connor said. “Then there are other folks that are really more interested in how I can get on the ground floor of this new industry as far as the recreational end of it.
“You have to recognize there are not too many industries that can flip the switch one day and turn into a billion dollar industry within the year. Cannabis did that,” said O’Connor. “Anytime you’re talking billion dollars of sales, this is a very real industry.”
“It’s so unique,” said Medina. “I’ve supported other career programs, but by far this is one of the most exciting and challenging, but overall great because we are doing a very first thing.”
O’Connor’s former students have already started working in dispensaries and creating podcasts surrounding cannabis. One student who has a culinary background hopes to become an edibles chef and break into the industry.
“There’s a lot of different avenues and a lot of folks are forward thinkers. They recognize they have certain talents, certain backgrounds, certain education already and they’re seeing how they might be able to meld that experience and education into the new industry,” O’Connor said.
Cecilia “CeCe” Coulom, 65, a Moraine Valley student taking the cannabis program, first began taking a variety of courses that she took interest in, starting in 2016, only taking one or two classes a semester. While looking for interesting classes, and receiving an email about the course, she discovered the Cannabis Retail Specialist program.
She was offered an early retirement package from her previous employer nine years ago, though as she saw the structure of her department changing, she knew it was time to retire and change her career path, she says.
Coulom previously worked in IT for 25 years, 5 years as a Network Engineer and 20 years as a Network Project Manager.
“This program is also relevant to me, as seniors are currently the fastest growing population in the cannabis community,” said Coulom. “With our aging population, the demand for cannabis products will continue to expand.”
Coulom’s love for learning keeps growing, pursuing her different interests. After retirement she attended culinary school, leading her to become principal bread baker for three years in a bakery. She plans to become an edibles chef as she believes her culinary background would provide her a “sound foundation for this type of career.”
“Thus far, the Cannabis Retail Specialist program has been extremely fascinating and educational,” she said. “I am enjoying all aspects of these classes as the information presented will prove helpful no matter what cannabis career path is taken.”
The program was released during the beginning of the pandemic in Fall 2020, though that did not affect the high enrollment. The program is experiencing a decline this semester of Fall 2021.
“Our thoughts are that our students are seeking to be back in person. We are offering an in-person course this semester, starting in January,” said Medina. The cannabis classes for Spring 2022 were just released,and are already starting to fill up entirely. Her thoughts on the decline of enrollment might be due to the stop of the in-person class. “We’ll have to consider offering at least one or two sections of the program in person,” she said.
Thirteen credit hour courses are required, consisting of “a blend of business, technical and cannabis-related topics so the student can effectively interact with and serve customers in a retail environment,” according to Moraine Valley’s website. There are six classes in total. Three cannabis related courses [Cannabis Introduction, Cannabis Pharmacology, and Cannabis Laws and Regulations], two business courses [Introduction to Business, and Principles of Retailing] and a technology course [Microsoft Office I].
Scholarships are available to help fund students enrolling into the program. Bedford Grow donated $85,000 in Feb. to the Moraine Valley Foundation. The vice president of Bedford Grow, Paul Chialdikas, is an alumnus of Moraine Valley. Maribis LLC donated $80,000 in June, donating a total of $165,000. The Maribis Lou Dineff Memorial Scholarship and Bedford Grow Dineff Memorial Scholarship supports five annual $1,000 from each scholarship for students in this certificate program, according to Moraine Valley’s website. Laurel Dineff is the founder and CEO of Maribis LLC and Bedford Grow.
Students must be 21 years or older to work in cannabis retail industry, comply with Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation requirements for the Medical and/or Adult-Use Cannabis Dispensary Agent Identification Card(s), and consent to a fingerprint-based criminal history record information background check as required by state law, according to Moraine Valley’s website.
If you have an interest in entering the industry, now is the time, says O’Connor. “A lot of students already recognize if you’re trying to get in on a ground floor, now’s the time, not 10 years from now.”