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Chicagoans Arrested For Marijuana Possession Are Getting Crash Course In The Legal Weed Business

The Olive Harvey College program aims to create more racial equity in the weed industry — from the ground up. It's on track to have an associate's degree in cannabis studies by next year.

Joseph Hooker, left, and Kelvin Evans, right, at a greenhouse used for the cannabis studies program at Olive-Harvey College.
Pascal Sabino / Block Club Chicago
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NORTH LAWNDALE — People once arrested for marijuana possession are now learning how to work in the legal weed industry thanks to a scholarship program funded by cannabis tax revenues.

Participants in the nine-month scholarship program, called Still I Rise, are getting a formal education and career training in cannabis studies at Olive-Harvey College in Pullman. Participants, who have a past arrest related to marijuana, get free tuition, a $1,000 monthly stipend, academic support and help with child care, transportation and case management as part of the program.

The school developed the cannabis studies certification when recreational weed was legalized statewide in 2019. It’s on track to have an accredited associate’s degree in cannabis studies by spring 2023.

The community college partnered with two nonprofits — Centers for New Horizons and UCAN — to create a referral pipeline to get South and West side residents into the program and connect participants with services like behavioral health support and mentorship to ensure their success.

The scholarship is intended to ensure communities that long suffered under the War on Drugs get a fair share of the economic opportunities generated by legalization. Despite efforts to diversify the emerging weed industry, few Black entrepreneurs were awarded licenses, and even fewer are opening for business.

“It’s a billion-dollar industry. And in a billion-dollar industry, you need an educated workforce to deliver. The best way for equity in an industry is to level the playing field for that education,” said Amanda Gettes, executive dean of the urban agriculture department at Olive-Harvey College.

Two cohorts with a total of 47 students are in the scholarship program. The cannabis studies curriculum includes a paid work-based training experience that offers direct pathways into jobs in the cannabis market, including as growers, lab technicians, lab directors and quality control.

Marijuana criminalization has created serious trauma and “generational curses” in many families, so it is essential for the Still I Rise program to offer students a trauma-informed “ecosystem of support,” said UCAN CEO Christa Hamilton.

“We recognize the past traumas that may trigger them or impact their behaviors,” Hamilton said. “It was really smart to incorporate those experiences and traumas around cannabis to help people explore their feelings around the plant, but to also have those wraparound mental health and behavioral health services.”

The end of marijuana prohibition is long overdue, said Joseph Hooker, a recipient of the Still I Rise scholarship. Marijuana has proven medicinal properties and minimal risk of abuse, he said. The prohibition of the plant was rooted in anti-Black racism that devastated entire communities, so it is essential for the industry to benefit Black people first as a way of reconciling with those historical wrongs, he said.

“So many people have been incarcerated. So many families have been destroyed over a substance that never killed anyone,” Hooker said. “Me being a Black man in America, I’m confused by it all, because we’re the first ones to be hurt by it but the last ones to gain from it.”

Hooker was 22 when he was first incarcerated for marijuana possession. He had only a single blunt on him, but since he was in a car with a friend that had a larger amount of cannabis, he was charged with carrying 58 grams, he said.

“It wasn’t even my weed,” Hooker said. “I end up getting out, but now this is on my case. I filled out an application for [a chain store]. Never had anything on my background, no gangbanging, nothing. But couldn’t work there because of the weed.

“I got tired of going to [chain businesses] and they won’t let me get a job for some stuff that they go home and smoke themselves,” he said. “That’s the only way I know how to get some money. … I went and got four pounds because I had to feed my babies.”

Hooker thinks the opportunity to study marijuana using industry-grade equipment in an academic setting can open doors for the growing and transportation business he hopes to launch.

Hooker aims to study the legal and regulatory system so he can be prepared to apply for a license to open a delivery service that will connect medical marijuana patients with dispensaries. Delivery is not yet allowed in Illinois, so he wants to get ahead of the game so he can be first in line when that sector does open up.

Scholarship recipient Kelvin Evans is especially drawn to the plant biology components of Olive-Harvey College’s cannabis studies program. He runs a holistic wellness company called Light Body Herbals that specializes in natural and plant-based healing products like perilla oil, jiaogulan and his signature Irish moss, which he says is the highest quality in the city.

Evans is studying ways that natural products like sea moss can “make a more effective delivery system” for the medicinal properties of cannabis-derived compounds like THC and CBD. He aims to develop products that can improve overall health, improve thyroid function and address chronic illnesses like sickle cell anemia “to advance Black health, in particular,” Evans said.

“The cannabis plant can be formulated with other herbs to do significant things for people,” Evans said. “I need to know exactly what systems in the body I’m looking to affect, how I’m looking to affect them and to what extent.”

Initiatives geared toward racial equity in the cannabis industry must be built around the needs of communities who have been devastated by weed prohibition, Evans said. Programs like the cannabis studies certification and scholarship at Olive-Harvey must design their curriculums to meet those affected communities where they are since “these are college classes, but the participants are not college students,” he said.

That makes the Still I Rise scholarship’s social services and monthly stipend such an important part of the cannabis studies program, Evans said. The stipends help participants pay for other priorities like food, rent and child care so they can focus on their education, he said.

“If you were to not have a stipend, I don’t know how responsive the community we’re trying to reach would be. The dollar rules your ability to get gas and food. People don’t have time to waste on programs that aren’t putting dollars in their pockets,” he said.

Now that the stigma around pot is easing up, there are opportunities for people to find employment or even start their own businesses, Hooker said. The cannabis studies program is a valuable avenue to help people break into the industry, he said.

But Hooker also worries efforts by cannabis corporations to legitimize the industry and make marijuana palatable for the general public may further separate the formal market from those who have expertise gained on the illicit market, he said. There is a need for reparations more broadly to uplift the communities harmed by criminalization rather than just those selected for the scholarship, he said.

“Half the stuff I know about cannabis, I didn’t read it in a book. I grew it. I smoked it for myself and know the effects. I knew what soil it needs, what chemicals, what temperatures,” he said. “They take these things and they make it righteous for them and their gain for something we’ve been doing for years.”

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