If you have an ACS member number, please enter it here so we can link this account to your membership. (optional)

ACS values your privacy. By submitting your information, you are gaining access to C&EN and subscribing to our weekly newsletter. We use the information you provide to make your reading experience better, and we will never sell your data to third party members.


Women In Science

Women shaping the cannabis industry

Female leaders in science and advocacy embrace the fast-growing business

by Britt E. Erickson
April 30, 2018 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 96, Issue 18


Female sign composed of marijuana leves.
Credit: Robin Braverman/C&EN/Shutterstock

The percentage of women who held executive level positions in the cannabis industry was a staggering 36% in 2015, according to a reader survey conducted by Marijuana Business Daily. Last year, however, that number fell to 27%, the publication reported. Even so, the number is still higher than the national average for all U.S. businesses, in which women hold just 23% of executive-level positions.

What opportunities exist for women in the emerging field of cannabis chemistry? C&EN talked with seven innovative women leaders who are using their skills in science and advocacy to improve the quality of cannabis products in U.S. states where the drug is legal for medical or recreational use. Some of the women also spoke about their work at the ACS national meeting in New Orleans in March, during the symposium “Women in Cannabis: Shaping an Emerging Industry.” Below are excerpts of some of their experiences and advice to other women and scientists considering a career in the cannabis industry.

Cannabis communicator

Melissa Wilcox presents a poster on the chiral analysis of cannabinoids
Credit: Courtesy of Melissa Wilcox

Melissa Wilcox

Current position: Global sales and market development manager, Regis Technologies, which specializes in developing and promoting methods for the separation of chiral compounds, including cannabinoids

Location: Morton Grove, Ill.

Education: B.S., biology and environmental sciences, Western Michigan University

Experience: Purified and isolated compounds from complex botanicals and dietary supplements; developed ­sample preparation methods for analyzing potency in cannabis edibles; cofounder and ­current communications director, ­Cannabis Chemistry Subdivision of the ACS Division of Chemical Health & Safety

What excites her about the cannabis industry: “Women are attracted to the cannabis industry because it is really interesting, it is fast moving, and there are a lot of challenges to overcome. I think in general women like those challenges. Couple that with a lack of patriarchal norms that are in other businesses, and I think they feel like they have more freedom, and maybe more control and autonomy.” In the cannabis industry, “there is a lot of work to be done and not a lot of people. There are not layers and layers of management.”

Observations on women in cannabis: “The number of women in executive roles in the cannabis industry went down a little bit” from 2015 to 2017. “I think that is in part due to the influx of people, businesses, and new programs being enacted in states. There is still a giant disparity in who is well funded. Men tend to have better access to capital.”

Contaminant chaser

Headshot of Julie Kowalski.
Credit: Courtesy of Julie Kowalski

Julie Kowalski

Current position: Director of science and research, Trace Analytics, a cannabis testing laboratory

Location: Spokane, Wash.

Education: B.S., chemistry, Juniata College; M.S., chemistry, and Ph.D., analytical chemistry, Pennsylvania State University

Experience: Developed analytical methods for food safety and chemical contaminant markets and for testing pesticide residues and other contaminants in cannabis

What excites her about the cannabis industry: “I feel many people in this industry have some sort of personal story about someone they know or a relative that they are hopeful cannabis medicine will help. I don’t think that is just related to women. I think in general it does make the industry more attractive, regardless of what segment you are in. You do feel like at the end of this, part of what is going to come out of it is potentially helping people.”

Observations on women in ­cannabis: “People in more well-established organizations are getting involved, and they tend to be traditionally male heavy, especially at higher levels. They are carrying into the industry a little bit of bias.”

Expert and advocate

Headshot of Heather Despres.
Credit: Courtesy of Healther Despres

Heather Despres

Current position: Consultant and advocate for legalization of cannabis in Virginia

Location: Washington, D.C., metropolitan area

Education: B.S. chemistry, Clarkson University; M.Sc., chemistry, University of Colorado, Denver

Experience: Worked in cannabis testing labs in Colorado and Vancouver, British Columbia; developed analytical method for quantitating the amount of THC in cannabis as a measure of potency; detected contaminants in cannabis using chromatography

What excites her about the cannabis industry: “With a younger industry you get less preconceived notions about what businesses and labs and science tend to look like.” She is advocating to legalize cannabis in Virginia because “this is an industry that could be beneficial to the state and to patients who need a medical product that is not an opioid.”

Observations on women in cannabis: The cannabis industry is no longer holding “conferences” with women in bikinis and lab coats. There has been an influx of women-owned companies, particularly in the cannabis-testing lab sector. “Cannabis being such a young industry, women have had a lot more opportunity to get involved and be involved in a way that they have typically not been able to in other industries.” Male-dominated investors, however, are now showing interest.

Safety supporter

Headshot of Lezli Engelking.
Credit: Courtesy of Liezli Engelking

Lezli Engelking

Current position: Founder, Foundation of Cannabis Unified Standards, a cannabis health and safety organization that addresses shortcomings in quality, safety, and consistency in legal cannabis products

Location: Scottsdale, Ariz.

Education: B.AS., communication studies, Arizona State University

Experience: Executive director of the first medical marijuana dispensary in Phoenix from 2012 to 2014; spent more than a decade as a senior sales representative for a major pharmaceutical company, where she “learned the importance of compliance, Good Manufacturing Practices, and all the implications that come along with not producing safe, quality, and consistent products”

What excites her about the cannabis industry: “I fell in love with the possibilities medicinal cannabis has to positively impact lives. I also became aware of all of the risks to public health and safety that exist in the industry.”

Observations on women in cannabis: “The cannabis industry has begun to show the world the power of women in the workplace. While women are still not represented equally, this industry has one of the highest rates of women in executive and founder roles. There is so much still to be done around cannabis—and most of that work requires not only science but the ability to have nonthreatening, educational conversations with individuals who have a different opinion. Women thrive in this area.”

Supercritical scientist

Headshot of Amber Wise.
Credit: ACS

Amber Wise

Current position: Science director, Avitas, a leading producer and processor of cannabis products in Washington and Oregon

Location: Seattle

Education: B.S., chemistry, ­University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point; Ph.D., chemistry, University of California, Berkeley

Experience: Isolation of botanical oils using supercritical fluid extraction; worked in chemical exposure and risk assessment, citizen science, air quality, pesticide use, and science policy; taught undergraduate chemistry classes at a university in San Francisco, a university for women in Bangladesh, and a minority-serving institute in Chicago

What excites her about the cannabis industry: “There is a huge need for scientists in the cannabis realm in every way, shape, and form. It’s a professional goal of mine to raise the scientific bar and lend legitimacy to this growing industry.” The cannabis industry “is unprecedented in terms of growth in a short time span. That makes it super exciting. I feel like I am literally on the forefront of shaping the science and creating policy in the state of Washington and therefore potentially federally in the future.”

Observations on women in cannabis: “Initially there were a lot of women in cannabis compared to other industries. Those numbers are declining. It is unclear all of the reasons why. A lot of it seems to point to just more and more traditional business folks getting into the cannabis realm and diluting it with white maleness.”

Voice on Capitol Hill

Photo of Tami Wahl.
Credit: London Photo Portfolios/Zuzana Breznanikova

Tami Wahl

Current position: Attorney and lobbyist

Location: Washington, D.C.

Education: B.A., international studies, Hamline University; J.D., Widener University

Experience: Worked for 20 years with industry stakeholders, trade associations, members of Congress, and federal agencies to shape policy and create a pathway to bring innovative products to market; has expertise in working with the U.S. Food & Drug Administration, Federal Trade Commission, and Customs & Border Protection in the areas of foods, beverages, cosmetics, dietary supplements, cannabis, pharmacy compounding, and botanical drugs

What excites her about the cannabis industry: “We have an opportunity to liberate a plant and correct course on failed policies. My legislative priority in the 115th Congress has been to ensure the state-enacted programs are protected from undue federal interference. I am specifically engaged on exploring what the interplay between the state-regulated markets and the federal government should look like to allow these 46-plus laboratories of democracy to continue in a competitive and just environment.”

Observations on women in cannabis: “The nascent regulated industry has experienced a decline in the number of women entrepreneurs entering the industry and holding C-suite positions. It would be wonderful if men in the cannabis industry stepped up and made a concerted effort to welcome diversity. However, with or without their support, women are committed to the regulated industry and are here to stay.”

Worldly researcher

Headshot of Linda Klumpers.
Credit: Courtesy of Linda Klumpers

Linda Klumpers

Current position: Founder and director, Tomori Pharmacology, doing business under the name Cannify, which matches consumers with cannabis products and helps companies improve cannabis products

Location: Denver

Education: M.Sc., neuroscience, University of Amsterdam; Ph.D., clinical pharmacology, Leiden University; registered clinical pharmacologist in the Netherlands

Experience: Conducting research on cannabinoids since 2006; worked for start-up companies in life sciences, clinical research, and business development; consultant for life sciences and biotech clients

What excites her about the cannabis industry: The potential to “make ­better products and to inform and educate both patients and the industry in general.”


Observations on women in cannabis: She advises women seeking a career in the industry to “be critical and ask questions.” The cannabis industry is novel and attracts people who are seeking “adventure and a better way to do things, but it also attracts people who want money, money. You see a lot of unprofessional behavior.”


This article has been sent to the following recipient:

Chemistry matters. Join us to get the news you need.