WIU’s new cannabis minors provide career opportunities

WIU student Nathan Stufflebeam (left) shows fellow student Jacob Johnson (right) how to use a digital microscope to take pictures of cannabis plants as part of the university’s new cannabis minors.

By JENNA SKARLUPKA, News Reporter 

MACOMB, Illinois (NEWS3) – When Illinois became the 11th state in the United States to legalize recreational marijuana, its usage and decriminalization increased — and here at WIU, so did academic and career opportunities. 

After Gov. Pritzker’s legalization bill went into effect on Jan. 1, WIU rolled out plans to offer two cannabis-related minors. Starting in the fall 2020 semester, WIU students can minor in Cannabis Production or Cannabis and Culture. These provide industry opportunities related to medical research, social and legal advocacy, policy making, processing and more.

WIU Senior Biology Instructor Tom Vogel hoped these minors will not only further academic research, but also remove stigmas surrounding cannabis use.

“The reality is, it’s just a plant,” Vogel said. “From that plant we can extract things that give you a euphoric feeling [or] that will reduce your inflammation… to give you some medicinal benefit.”

Vogel said some of his students have already accepted jobs in the business of growing and processing cannabis. He said that businesses contacted him soon after Illinois’s legalization of industrial hemp to recruit students to the workforce.

“I had to tell them, ‘Be patient, give us time to teach them so they can come to your industry and work in that field,” Vogel said.

Vogel said that the main cannabis plants, hemp and marijuana, differ in their concentrations of CBD and THC, two cannabinoids. Hemp oil is extracted from grinding the plant’s seeds, resulting in a high-energy oil with “no CBD or THC in it.” These instead come from the flower of the cannabis plant, and the higher the concentrations, the higher the quality.

“If you don’t have at least 12 percent CBD content in your flower at the end of the year, no processor wants to deal with that because they have to take so much product in to get a little CBD out,” Vogel said.

Students pursuing the new minors can apply backgrounds like computer science, art, and more to explore the variety of career options in the cannabis industry.

“Each one of my students is involved in a particular research project that they designed themselves,” Vogel said. “and then depending on their particular background, it helps them to see that this is where they want to go in the field.”

Vogel said the main goal is not to grow top-selling cannabis, but for students to learn about the makeup of the plant and its various applications.

“It’s not about making the best cannabis we can here on campus. It’s about making students understand the field, and really gain some experience with the plants,” Vogel said.

Vogel, along with WIU professors of agriculture, biology, chemistry and forensics, is conducting research in industrial hemp, gene expression, pancreatic cancer, and cannabinoid extraction. Plants grown on campus are currently sent to out-of-state facilities and medical schools that can perform further research more quickly.

“We’re playing catch-up, but we’re in it, and we’re making progress every day,” Vogel said. “Cannabis from our fields has been used in one study that’s focusing on PTSD in returning soldiers, and tremendous data is coming in.”

Vogel also said that while every part of the cannabis plants grown at WIU are useful, the next step is to bring in markets closer to home.

“There’s really no part of the plant that goes unused,” Vogel said. “We just have to build the markets locally so we don’t have to ship this hundreds and hundreds of miles away.”

For more information on WIU’s cannabis studies, visit wiu.edu/academics/cannabis.