The school year may be two weeks old, but there’s still a buzz at one college in southern Ontario over a program not available anywhere else in the country.

“I never thought five years ago, maybe even two years ago, that we’d be here in this classroom starting a course on commercial cannabis production,” said professor Bill MacDonald.

MacDonald is the head of Niagara’s College’s new cannabis program. On the first day of school, he not only had students huddled around him, but also reporters and cameras.

The root of the excitement is that Canada is just over a month away from making pot legal for recreational use, and licensed cannabis producers across the country are hiring greenhouse staff as they ramp up operations.

Niagara College is offering what some might see as a pretty cool credential— a one-year certificate in growing pot. But if it has cachet, the class also comes with hard work.

Some of the classes take place in a facility MacDonald says is nicknamed “the cannabunker”: a series of shipping containers linked together to form a high-tech, high-security production lab for growing marijuana.

Students will get intensive hands-on training in growing pot with classes that focus on topics like plant nutrition, climate control, pest control and plant selection.

There are also courses about the regulations governing cannabis in Canada. The program ends with a field placement for students at a cannabis producer in the region.

Upon graduation, they’ll be ready to work at one of more than 100 cannabis producers already in the country.

Popular program     

Over 300 people applied for 24 spots in Niagara College’s program, making entry to the pot school very competitive. The two dozen students in the first cannabis class range in age from 21 to 54, and several of them left full-time jobs for the opportunity.

Professor Bill MacDonald addresses students in Niagara College’s commercial cannabis program. (James Dunne/CBC)

“This isn’t a program for people who are just thinking about, what am I going to do at college?” explains Vivian Kinnaird, Niagara College’s dean of Business, Hospitality and Environment. “It is for people who know something about plant science, and understand the principles and fundamentals scientifically of what goes on in a growing environment so we can start the program at a higher level.”

John Skilnyk, who spent five years as an RCMP officer, is one of those who made the cut. After 28 years living and working in the Yukon, the 54-year-old wanted a life change.

“I must admit I did have to reconcile with myself the whole idea of legalization, having been in the RCMP,” says Skilnyk. “I was witness first-hand to the effects of addictions.”

He came to the view that legalizing recreational cannabis could lead to a better world. “As I thought about it, I sort of did reconcile that this is an opportunity to do things right.”

John Skilnyk, who worked as an RCMP officer for five years, is now enrolled in the commercial cannabis program at Niagara College. (Joe Fiorino/CBC)

Fellow student Elizabeth Foley just completed an undergraduate honours degree in biology last year. She sees the young cannabis industry as “the start of something very big.” Foley is confident about her job prospects on graduation. “All the licensed producers will know that I’m a professional, skilled worker who knows what she’s going to be doing when I get in the door of their facility.”

Learn more at CBC