Cannabis jobs boon expected as Illinois’ medical industry prepares for recreational sales

In May, 75 new cannabis licenses will be awarded. (Photo courtesy: WJBC/File)

By Illinois Radio Network

SPRINGFIELD – Gov. J.B. Pritzker expects cannabis cultivation jobs to double as the cannabis market opens for legal recreational sales beginning Jan. 1.

Adult-use cannabis sales are set to begin legal Jan. 1. Some 30 medical dispensaries set to begin recreational sales around the state. Pritzker said as many as 75 more dispensary licenses will be awarded in May.

“And over time we expect cultivation jobs to double and new jobs in this industry will number in the thousands,” Pritzker said at a bill signing last week, putting the final touches on cannabis legalization.

Barry resident Tre Hoskins works at Ascend Illinois’ medical cannabis cultivation center as a propagation specialist. Ascend is one of 14 cultivation centers in Illinois. During a tour of the facility last week he explained how pruning the plant maximizes the yield.

“If the plants could have their way they would just grow up as high as they could,” Hoskins said. “This lets us sculpt and really do to the plant what we want it to do and grow our way rather than it’s own way.”

Ascend Illinois Director of Manufacturing David Jerome said the jobs pay from about $12 an hour to $18 an hour and higher. The company hires from the local labor market as much as possible.

“We tried our best to cultivate, no pun intended, and get the local folks excited about this,” Jerome said. “We believe in growing our own.”

Ascend has 106 employees at that location, Jerome said, as the business prepares for the launch of legal adult-use cannabis sales Jan. 1. He said the business will evaluate expanding in six months to a year. It could triple its growing capacity in the future, which would mean more jobs.

Samuel Stowell, a central Illinois chemist who previously worked at a major agriculture company refining high fructose corn syrup, now refines THC from cannabis.

After he graduated from Illinois College in Jacksonville, Stowell worked at ADM. He now is a lab manager and analytical chemist for Ascend Illinois’ medical cannabis cultivation center in Barry. He said the manufacturing practices are pretty much identical.

“Obviously this is a little sexier, a little more fun than corn, but very, very similar,” Stowell said. “We’re extracting sugars from plants at ADM and we’re extracting cannabinoids from different plants over here.”

Stowell said he was a little apprehensive about switching jobs at first, but he said even his parents saw it as a great opportunity.

“I had the same thought,” Stowell said. “Will this affect future job prospects and what is this industry? The tide is turning in public perception it seems like to me.”

Applicants for the next round of cannabis licenses will be opened on Tuesday and run through Jan. 2. There could be up to 75 new licenses announced in May. There will also be opportunities for people to apply for smaller-scale craft grower licenses.

People interested in becoming a budtender, someone who works the sales counter at a dispensary, must have state-approved training within 90 days of being hired.

Illinois Radio Network can be reached at News@WJBC.com. 

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