Students in Dieppe learn to grow pot — without the actual plants

In a small classroom at the community college in Dieppe, students are being trained as medicinal cannabis cultivation technicians. There's a lot of greenery, but none of it's a cannabis plant.

First class of medicinal cannabis cultivation technicians edges closer to graduation

Scott Clark, Shawn Stewart and Penny Richard are part of the first class of medicinal cannabis cultivation technicians at the community college in Dieppe. (Kate Letterick/CBC News)

In a small classroom at the community college in Dieppe, students are being trained as medicinal cannabis cultivation technicians.

There's a lot of greenery but not a cannabis plant for the students to work with.

"There's definitely a challenge, I won't kid you there, when you don't have that particular plant in the classroom," said instructor Karen Carrier.

But "a plant is a plant," she said, and the horticultural skills the students are learning will get them ready for jobs in the cannabis industry.

The 24 students are the first to take the 12-week course announced last fall by the provincial government, which is covering the tuition. 

Shawn Stewart of Miramichi says he's happy to use his science background in what looks like a promising industry. (Pierre Fournier/CBC News )

Shawn Stewart of Miramichi, who has a bachelor of science degree from Dalhousie University, said he's excited to be in the first cannabis-growing class at the college, Dieppe is the only campus in New Brunswick where it's offered.

"I never expected expected myself coming into the cannabis field," Stewart said. "It's a new industry in New Brunswick. It's showing promise for a lot of good job openings throughout Canada, and, honestly, it was kind of sad to be stuck in customer service for seven years.

"And it looked like a really good thing to put my science background into — a really new promising industry."

Like Stewart, Penny Richard of Cap-Pelé never pictured herself in the cannabis industry.

Penny Richard was at home for several years, looking after her kids, but signed up for the cannabis cultivation training to try something different. (Pierre Fournier/CBC News )

"I was at home with my kids for six years, and I decided that I wanted to do something else," Richard said.

"And then I saw on my Facebook, I saw the news report that they were going to give this course, and it was going to be covered by the government, and I thought, 'Why not apply?'" 

Scott Clark of Woodstock, who already has a background in horticulture, said plants, including marijuana, have general needs that can be mimicked in the classroom using other plants.

"It's not exactly the same, but it's one of the best mockups that we can do right now [because] the plant is illegal," he said. "It's not like we can each have a plant in the classroom, right?"

Clark said he's looking forward to seeing where the industry takes him.

Scott Clark has worked in greenhouses and is looking forward to breaking into the 'green gold' of the industry. (Pierre Fournier/CBC News )

"I've worked in a greenhouse for the last few years," he said. "I've done all sorts of perennials, annuals, all sorts of different plants.

"Cannabis was never on my radar, and I never thought I'd be doing something like this. In fact, that's the green gold, so to speak. I'm definitely excited for the industry."

People with prescriptions can already get medicinal marijuana, and recreational use is expected to become legal this summer.

Carrier said that when she was approached to teach the course, she was surprised at the mention of cannabis.

"With my personality, I kind of took a step back and said, 'OK, this is a new one,'" she said. "But honestly, it came down to a plant is a plant and horticulture is about training and talking with people, working with colleagues and taking a plant from … its seedling stage right through its growth steps to the point that you're producing either that flower or whatever the end goal is," she said.

Instructor Karen Carrier says students don't work with actual cannabis plants in the classroom, but they have been to a licensed producer to see the plant at its various stages. (Kate Letterick/CBC News )

Carrier said students have visited local licensed cannabis producer Organigram, so they have some experience working with the plant at different stages.

Pierre Clavet, a sector adviser to the community college, said the program was developed because of a demand from the industry, and the province identified it as a priority sector.

"We saw that there was kind of an opportunity to help the producers because they were lacking a lot of talent for their operations," Clavet said.

Sitting down with the producers, the college learned that one of their biggest needs was for cultivation technicians, the people who work with the plants.

"It's probably where the most, where there's the most hires in terms of workers within the production site, so that's where we kind of targeted the first training or the first training program."

Pierre Clavet, a sector adviser to the college, says the course was developed to meet a demand in the growing cannabis industry. (Guy LeBlanc/CBC News )

As the first students near graduation, Shawn Stewart said his future looks bright.

"I can bring customer service to a whole new level, helping patients feel better everyday," he said. "So it made me really happy as a person."