Pioneering Spirits: Three Women Leaders in Cannabis Science Share Their Trials, Tribulations, Successes, and Advice

June 20, 2018

In this month’s “Cannabis Crossroads,” I would like to share inspiring stories of passion and persistence by highlighting the amazing efforts of some truly pioneering souls: Shannon Hoffman, the Regional Director of Operations and Certifying Chemist for Steep Hill Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C.; Dr. Jacklyn R. Green, Chief Executive Officer of Agate Biosciences; and Dr. Sue Sisley, M.D., President of Scottsdale Research Institute, on faculty at Colorado State University and Humboldt State University, and Senior Fellow at Thomas Jefferson University Lambert Center. These three women, each with a diverse background, are true leaders in cannabis science.

Please explain how long you have been working in the cannabis industry and what first got you interested in cannabis science.

Shannon Hoffman: I’ve been working in cannabis for close to a year. I started off doing some consulting last summer before joining Steep Hill in December 2017. I’ve been casually interested in cannabis science for some time. A merger at my previous employer led to my decision to resign at just the time when the industry was on the brink of opening in Maryland; it seemed fated for me to make the jump into cannabis.

Dr. Jacklyn R. Green: I was first introduced to cannabis science by my best friend, Dr. Claudia Jensen, in 1996, when the California laws changed. She was one of the very first cannabis doctors in California. I was supportive of cannabis, although I did not partake. Through my conversations with Claudia, I became much more attuned with the role of cannabis in helping people with a wide variety of conditions. At that time, I was working full time as a planetary scientist at The National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Jet Propulsion Laboratory. My husband, Dr. Roger Kern, a plant microbiologist, and I developed a concept for a small, autonomous greenhouse for the surface of Mars to test technologies that we would need for larger greenhouses for future astronauts exploring the Red Planet. This project gave us our first steps in developing controlled environment agriculture (CEA) systems. As the years flew by, we continued our work in CEA—and as cannabis laws changed across the country, we found ourselves in an environment that allowed us to bring our scientific knowledge, systems engineering approach, and project management experience from NASA to the cannabis industry to help solve some of the most challenging problems facing us to ensure safe and consistent products for people across the country.

Dr. Sue Sisley: It’s been almost 10 years since I began studying cannabis as a medicine and fighting for public policy reform. Military veterans prompted my interest in studying cannabis. They claimed they were benefiting, but I was highly skeptical. I’m a lifelong Republican and had been brainwashed by big pharma and the medical profession to view cannabis as a dangerous addictive drug. I first began paying attention because of the social justice issues. We launched a charity called Doctors for Cannabis Regulation to try to create a safe harbor for physicians to speak openly about their views on ending cannabis prohibition. We’ve also created a veterans charity called the Battlefield Foundation, which recently received its 501(c)(3). We are busy trying to raise money for rigorous controlled trials as well as to create jobs in the cannabis industry for veterans. So we do a matchmaking service and it’s been very gratifying to create meaningful employment for veterans within the cannabis space.

What is one lesson that you had to learn the hard way, or a major obstacle that you had to overcome in cannabis science?

Green: Explaining the role of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects to long-term cannabis industry participants is an ongoing challenge. Cannabis is coming out of the shadows into the bright light of scientific investigation, well-implemented systems engineering, and expert project management. The challenge is that people, in general, believe they know how to grow plants and specialists know how to grow cannabis in high-tech environments indoors. However, most cannabis insiders perform their work by the seat of their pants, by the look and feel of things. We must have rigorous procedures, exactness in standards, and intelligent planning for projects of all sizes that allow optimization, at the systems level, to create a safe and reliable supply chain and a consistent, regulated distribution chain for legal cannabis products.

Sisley: I learned that public universities are terrified of the word cannabis. Cannabis has become so politically radioactive that many universities are still convinced they will lose their federal funding if they do even U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA)-approved research.