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Oakton and PharmaCann leaders celebrate the unveiling of a cannabis cultivation lab with a ribbon-cutting ceremony. (Photo provided)

At a dedication ceremony held Wednesday morning, Oakton Community College administrators, professors and students celebrated the grand opening of the PharmaCann Cannabis Cultivation Lab at the college’s Des Plaines campus. 

Funded by a $600,000 donation to Oakton from PharmaCann, a nationwide cannabis company that produces both medical and recreational marijuana products, the 2,900-square-foot lab features three grow rooms and technology for controlling temperature, irrigation and lighting throughout the facility. Designed to educate students about the growth process of the marijuana plant and the production of different cannabis products, school officials say the lab is the first fully equipped cannabis cultivation facility on a college campus in the state of Illinois. 

“It is incredible to see this beautiful new facility operational just a bit more than a year after the PharmaCann donation was announced,” said Oakton President Joianne Smith. “The cannabis industry represents a unique opportunity for students interested in agriculture, science, health care, retailing and nearly everything in between.”

In 2019, Oakton developed a curriculum aimed at training students interested in pursuing a career in the medical cannabis field. So far, more than 550 students have enrolled in cannabis education programs at Oakton, and program participants have already earned nearly 150 academic credentials for cannabis industry training, according to school figures. 

Now, with the cultivation lab available as an additional resource for students and faculty, Oakton has launched a cannabis cultivation certificate program as well. 

Students in the program will learn the basics of each step involved in the agricultural production of cannabis, and scholarships available through PharmaCann’s donation will also offer free tuition for social equity applicants, including students of color, anyone negatively impacted by cannabis laws and domestic violence victims. 

Oakton students pot the cultivation lab’s first cannabis plants. (Photo provided)

“Education is one of the foundational pillars of social equity,” said Brittany Williams, Vice President of Social Equity, Diversity & Inclusion for PharmaCann. “It is through education that we can begin to restore access to opportunities that have been stripped from disadvantaged communities.”

But even though the state of Illinois legalized the recreational use of marijuana in 2020, the cultivation, use and distribution of THC, the psychoactive compound typically found in cannabis, remains prohibited both at the federal level and on most college campuses. As a result, the Oakton cultivation lab exclusively features marijuana plants that produce CBD, the non-psychoactive ingredient in cannabis intended to treat anxiety, muscle soreness and other mental and physical ailments. 

When the state officially authorized adult-use marijuana, Gov. J.B. Pritzker hailed the Illinois legalization effort as the most equitable in the nation, but many Black and Brown entrepreneurs who won a dispensary license through the state’s lottery process have yet to open their businesses due to COVID-19 delays and a legal battle over the licensing system. That situation has put a strain on the legal industry where the current number of dispensaries cannot meet the blossoming demand for cannabis products, according to officials with the National Cannabis Industry Association

But PharmaCann and Oakton leaders are hoping that programs like the cultivation lab will help improve the landscape for local production and distribution. George Hickman, a professor of cannabis botany at Oakton, explained after Wednesday’s ceremony that beyond the cultivation of cannabis plants, students are also learning how to use the lab’s technology to maximize energy conservation and environmental efficiency. 

Professor George Hickman speaks during one of the first tours of the cultivation lab on April 6. (Photo by Duncan Agnew)

Growing cannabis requires carbon dioxide, fertilizer, water and artificial light, so paying constant attention to energy usage is a must, according to Hickman. But compared to other crops grown on farms outdoors, cultivators can produce almost endless variations of cannabis thanks to a controlled, indoor environment, Hickman said. Manipulating the type of soil or the level of carbon dioxide, for example, can produce a different outcome for the plants, so experimentation plays a big factor in cannabis growth. 

And at Wednesday’s ceremony, PharmaCann Senior Vice President of Public and Regulatory Affairs Jeremy Unruh complimented Oakton administrators and professors like Hickman for their cannabis education curriculum.

“We made this decision to make our commitment to Oakton Community College because you made it easy for us,” Unruh said. “Your plans were so much more fully developed than any of the other schools that reached out to us at that time that this decision was a no-brainer for us.”

Duncan Agnew

Duncan Agnew covers Evanston public schools, affordable housing, City Hall and more for the RoundTable. He also writes long-form investigations, features and the morning email newsletter three times a...

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