Science and cannabis — two sectors that have traditionally been dominated by men — are benefiting from the rise of female leaders
By Sue Vorenberg
Rowshon Reordan found herself in an uncomfortable position when she joined the subcommittee on testing for House Bill 3460, a medical marijuana bill in Oregon in 2013.
As the Green Leaf Lab founder scanned the conference room, she realized she was the only woman – and that many of her male peers were staring at her, questioning why she was there.
“That was a bit of a hostile environment,” Reordan said. “Being a woman in the industry has certainly been an interesting process.”
Like many women working in areas of cannabis science, Reordan has had to fight against what started out as a mostly male-dominated industry.
But in just a few years, perceptions have started to change, thanks in part to women’s networking groups and a growing influx of scientific women who are joining a sector that is very much still a work in progress — one where glass ceilings are easily shattered as new businesses are founded.
The bill Reordan worked on in 2013 passed and was made law. And the next time she provided testing and technical advice to a government agency — this time the Oregon Liquor Control Commission — she found herself in a much more supportive environment, where she wasn’t the only woman and her comments were taken far more seriously, she said.
“Things have been evolving quickly,” Reordan said. “There are so many amazing women in the industry now. More join every day. And networking groups like Women Grow have been a huge help.”
Women Grow, a for-profit national networking group open to both men and women, has expanded rapidly since it was founded in Denver in 2014. In just a year, the group has expanded well beyond Colorado’s borders, with events and speaker series in more than 30 cities in the United States and Canada.
One of the group’s goals is to help found more than 1,000 women-owned businesses in the cannabis industry.
Daniela Vergara, founder of the Agricultural Genomics Foundation and a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Colorado in Boulder, said she also found a strong encouraging community in the networking group.
“For all of us, women in any scientific field is hard,” Vergara said. “Being a woman in academia is not easy. But I found a lot of support from Women Grow. They’ve done great work connecting people.”
Vergara’s work involves comparing genomic regions of cannabis plant strains, looking for differences and similarities between them.
“Down the road our research could lead to many tools that are available in other agricultural crops,” she said. “For instance, we could use the information to create plants that are purple, that flower early, or that smell like lemon.”
She’s also interested in looking at original cannabis landrace strains to determine how they were interbred to create the modern proliferation of hundreds of strains on the market.
In academia, Vergara said she still often encounters the “old boys’ club” in higher positions of authority. It’s a problem that should be met with more education, she said.
“Men do not realize that they have the power,” Vergara said. “Sometimes they fail to realize the other side of the coin. Sometimes they don’t know how to be more inclusive and progressive. Sometimes they don’t realize how to empower their peers, and I think we need to help them open their eyes.”
Part of the reason she founded the Agricultural Genomics Foundation in 2014 was to expand her research on her own terms. The foundation’s goals are to create a repository of genetic information and images of various cannabis strains that can be used by growers and others in the industry.
Dr. Michelle Sexton, a former research scientist at Bastyr University* who is now currently working at the Center for Cannabis and Social Policy; Sexton worked as a midwife for 10 years before returning to school at 40 to pursue a degree in horticulture and her doctorate in naturopathic medicine at Bastyr University.
After the state of Washington passed I-502, Sexton was solicited to help the state with its rulemaking.
“I got a called within a month of that and was asked to be an unofficial advisor to the department for developing quality control,” she said.
At that time Sexton was working with Roy Upton, who was the executive director of the American Herbal Pharmacopeia, to put together the cannabis monograph. After she put Upton in touch with the liquor and cannabis board, the monograph she had been working on was adopted as the official guide for cannabis quality control. Cannabis was originally removed from the U.S. pharmacopeia in 1932 until American Herbal’s pharmacopeia reinstated it for use in Washington.
“It was a really formal step for this plant to be adopted back in and to have this document available to guide governments and practitioners,” she said.
For the purpose of quality control, Upton split the monograph into two parts, the first being an inside look at manufacturing, growing and quality control; the second part later became the therapeutic compendium.
“That was a huge contribution,” Sexton said. “I was a participant in the cannabis industry at large. I was an editor and technical advisor on both of those documents.”
Sexton worked on two other cannabis-related research articles as part of her post-doctoral fellowship with the University of Washington, including one that addressed cannabis use by patients with multiple sclerosis.
Today, Sexton is busy compiling the research she’s gathered from Bastyr’s cannabis use survey, a collaboration with her affiliates at the Center for Cannabis and Social Policy. The survey’s scope is broad, covering who cannabis users are, what their beliefs about cannabis are, their use patterns, side effects and the therapeutic benefits the users experience.
“At this point it is really the largest survey on cannabis to date,” she said.
Sexton said the disparity between men and women in the field of science has been changing rapidly in recent years. Her daughter recently received her Ph.D. working in a lab that included more than a dozen women and just two men.
“It is changing in that generation but in my generation it’s still very male dominated for my age group in science,” she said.
One of the issues women in the industry face is that the stigma around marijuana often pushes them out of their comfort zone, said Suzanne Sisley, a researcher in Arizona studying cannabis as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.
“The tough thing for women, the biggest challenge, is that activism and controversy aren’t roles that women are often comfortable with,” Sisley said. “It’s something I had to learn.”
Sisley made national headlines when she was fired from the University of Arizona after her research and activism drew unwanted attention to the school — despite the fact that Sisley had received approval for the study from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, a notoriously difficult process for researchers to navigate.
In the wake of the university decision, Sisley decided to strike out on her own. She is still working on the study, with the help of California’s Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS) and other scientific research groups.
“Being fired, for me, was actually the best comeback,” Sisley said. “I’ve gotten grants to do the work on my own, and I proved to these people that I don’t need the university to conduct my research. I’m happily independent.”
She’s now in phase two drug trials looking at whole-plant marijuana for combat veterans with treatment-resistant PTSD, although getting the strain-specific marijuana samples she needs from NIDA has become a long, drawn-out process, she said.
“It takes them 17 months to get us the samples we need,” Sisley said. “Obviously we’re going to persevere, but that’s delayed the study for over a year.”
Sexton emphasized that funding is the biggest issue for scientific research into cannabis, not gender discrimination.
As more women have founded and built businesses within the cannabis industry, job opportunities for women in cannabis science have also started to expand, said Bethany Sherman, founder and president of Oregon Growers Analytical, a testing lab.
“Cannabis testing is really so new,” Sherman said. “There’s so much buzz, excitement and opportunity in the cannabis industry. I’d say there’s probably just as many women applying for our technical positions as men now.”
She got into the testing business after her mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. When she looked into cannabis as a treatment option she noticed there were significant issues with pesticides that could be very harmful to patients.
“At the time there were just two labs in Oregon, and neither was working on consumer safety, so it was, for me, a pretty obvious gap that needed to be filled,” Sherman said.
She founded the lab in 2013 — in an industry she noticed was mostly comprised of men. But that’s not so much the case anymore, she said.
“From the beginning it was sort of a mixed bag,” Sherman said. “It’s been a male-dominated industry, but women are on the rise. It started with men not being all that supportive, but it’s really evolved quite a bit in just a few years.”
Sherman has also founded a new networking group called Women Leaders in Cannabis. The group is small and just starting out, but the goal is fairly different from other networking groups. Women Leaders in Cannabis is non-profit and restricted to women only.
Sherman said one of the core goals is philanthropy.
“We want to give back to the community and help women connect,” she said.
One of the objectives is to show that cannabis businesses can integrate with other industries and with communities to be helpful corporate citizens. In the fall of 2015, Women Leaders of Cannabis collected and donated food and gift baskets for families in need. Although the donations were originally rejected by the state Department of Health and Human Services, Women Leaders of Cannabis eventually found a thankful recipient in Autism Rocks.
The group is planning to continue more community outreach, such as gathering coats for underprivileged children.
“This is an opportunity to show the community that the cannabis industry isn’t just a bunch of stoners,” she said. “We’re real community members. This is a brand new economy, and we have the opportunity to build it from the ground up. And because it’s so new, it has the potential to help women exceed or shatter the glass ceiling that exists in so many other industries.”
*A previous version of this story, published in the January 2016 issue of Marijuana Venture, incorrectly stated Dr. Michelle Sexton’s current employer. Sexton is currently working with the Center for the Study of Cannabis and Social Policy.