Weeded Out: How the U of A Fired Pot Researcher Sue Sisley After a State Senator Complained

Weeded Out: How the U of A Fired Pot Researcher Sue Sisley After a State Senator Complained

Sue Sisley, M.D., is nearly blind.

She can't see out of her left eye and has minimal vision in her right, resulting from amblyopia, a condition she's had since birth. Her remaining eyesight "doesn't seem to be deteriorating further," she says. But in recent months, Sisley's been trying to train Penny, a rescue dog from the Humane Society, for her potentially to use someday. It's not really working out. Cute but undisciplined, Penny -- wearing a blue vest -- greets a visitor excitedly at the Arizona Telemedicine Program's Phoenix office.

On this Tuesday afternoon, 45-year-old Sisley is the only person working in the facility. She's got back-to-back video meetings with patients but takes a break to meet with a reporter, after a weeks-long stampede of attention from the news media.

See also: -PTSD Sufferers Can Obtain Medical Marijuana Under Arizona Law Starting in January Sisley's served on the telemedicine program's executive committee as associate director of interprofessional education, a part-time position, since 2007. The facility, in a wing of the University of Arizona's Phoenix campus at 550 East Van Buren, is one of the regional hubs for the high-tech program and one of the most highly touted divisions of the Tucson-based university's College of Medicine. From the center, as with other hubs in Flagstaff and Tucson, physicians such as Sisley consult with patients using video cameras and such high-tech instruments as digital stethoscopes, and they conduct various doctor-education programs.

Using equipment at the facility and at her Scottsdale home, she's one of the most prolific "virtual" doctors in the program, conducting thousands of patient consultations yearly in her part-time U of A job and private telemedicine practice. It's a good match for her because it limits how much driving she has to do. She treats many rural mentally ill patients, some of whom have conditions that make them fearful of leaving their homes. She's won accolades for her work from patients and from her bosses at the U of A. Yet at 5 p.m. on June 27, she was told in an e-mailed letter from the university that her contract wouldn't be renewed and that she had until September 29 to vacate the Phoenix facility.

A July 9 follow-up letter from Joe "Skip" Garcia, senior vice president of health services for the College of Medicine, and Stuart Flynn, her direct boss and dean of the College of Medicine's Phoenix branch, informed her that a "strategic decision" regarding the structure of the telemedicine program contributed to the non-renewal of her contract.

The letter also mentioned that her U of A role as coordinator for a physician-education program on medical marijuana no longer would be funded by a state grant; therefore, she no longer could be supported in the position -- even though the three-year program was in its first year, with two-thirds of its money still in the bank.

No one outside the U of A knows for sure why Sisley was fired, not even Sisley. The university's refused to release details or records that would expose what really happened, citing employment guidelines.

Weeded Out: How the U of A Fired Pot Researcher Sue Sisley After a State Senator Complained

The apparent problem was her intense focus on medical cannabis and her quest to launch an unprecedented, scientifically sound study on the effects of marijuana on veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

"I'm focused squarely on how we can get this vets research under way," she says. "That consumes me from the minute I wake up . . . I don't even understand why it's controversial.

Probably because [the medicine's] not pills -- it's green and leafy."

Sisley stands at above-average height and has distinctive black, curly hair that falls below her shoulders. Her energy level is infectious. She's a habitual hugger with a warm personality and a mind that seems ready to race off in any direction. She's passionate about not only marijuana but about her other medical projects and her involvement in the arts community.

Unmarried and childless, she's devoted enormous time to helping children, winning awards and presidential commendations for her work with arts projects for at-risk kids. And she can be eccentric, as evidenced by a video on her YouTube channel featuring her dancing in an outlandish costume in support of the Phoenix Suns. Her extreme interest in cannabis, combined with her offbeat, driven personality, makes her sound similar to hippie-esque pot advocates who arm themselves with scientific-sounding jargon.

But she's no hippie.

Sisley's a lifelong Republican who says she's never tried marijuana, in any form. While in her medical-residency program, she was awarded a grant to produce a play, Think It Through Revue, which promoted sexual abstinence for teens. It was performed at "numerous middle schools, churches, and community events throughout Arizona," according to the March 17, 1999, issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Sisley completed her undergraduate work at Northern Arizona University before moving on to the U of A to get her medical degree. She completed a five-year residency in 2000, specializing in psychiatry and internal medicine. She was in private practice in the Valley for several years with her mother, also an M.D.

Sisley has another major interest: politics.

She drafts and lobbies for legislation, openly supports or opposes candidates and issues, and last year tried to run a political-action committee. She campaigned for the Arizona Medical Marijuana Act before it was approved narrowly by voters in November 2010. Her typing skills can be measured in e-mails per hour, and her verbal and organizational acumen rival that of silver-tongued elected officials. She has a huge list of contacts in Arizona to lean on for support -- or to harangue and criticize.

"That's what I do all day -- call electeds and harass them," she says with a grin, half-kidding. After all, she also manages to conduct all those consultations.

In retrospect, it probably was inevitable that her obsessions with medical marijuana and politics would dovetail -- and get her into trouble at work.

 

Dr. Sue Sisley says U of A administrators bent to political pressure in firing her.
Dr. Sue Sisley says U of A administrators bent to political pressure in firing her.
Image: Evie Carpenter

The story of what happened to Sue Sisley went viral when the news media jumped on it in early July.

For weeks, news outlets around the country ran stories about her firing and her allegation that political pressure on the U of A was the cause.

CNN's Sanjay Gupta, who famously changed his mind about medical marijuana last year after witnessing firsthand how well it worked for certain epileptic children, aired a sympathetic interview with Sisley on July 14. Her case -- which may yet turn into a lawsuit or an investigation -- has injected itself into the greater marijuana debate in this country, where half of the states have some form of medicinal-use leniency and where two states sell pot to the public like it's alcohol.

Sisley's apparent dismissal over her advocacy of pot to help veterans comes amid an investigation into a scandal originating in Phoenix involving fatally delayed care for terminally ill and suicidal patients at U.S. Veterans Administration hospitals.

In the view of progressives and advocates for marijuana legalization, Sisley's firing was yet another embarrassment for Arizona in that it involved conservative leaders behaving dogmatically. The message that the Sisley debacle laid down to the rest of the nation was that Arizonans hate science concerning medicine the state's legalized.

Evidence shows that, despite denials by the U of A, political pressure to do something about Sisley did take place. That is, her allegation that the university caved in to that pressure stands up to scrutiny.

As for the research she championed -- more delays. The action against her came at the same time that the study of pot's effect on PTSD patients moved forward after years of effort and was headed for an official start early next year.

The federal Food and Drug Administration had approved the study in April 2011. This was followed by approval by the U of A's Institutional Review Board in October 2012. Then, crucially, on March 14, the federal Department of Health and Human Services approved the study to receive 22 pounds of government-grown weed in January for testing on male and female veterans diagnosed with PTSD.

The study actually is the property of the California-based Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), which owns all the government approvals. Sisley's the principal investigator -- as well as the study's most vocal proponent.

With the tearing up of her contract went Sisley's academic appointment at the U of A, which would have allowed her to conduct the research on campus. No federally approved location, no study. Sisley and MAPS now are shopping around for a new location. They asked NAU -- and were treated as though they were radioactive.

Marijuana is a touchy subject in Arizona, home to rabidly right-wing, six-term Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, an official state gun, and tough policies regarding undocumented immigrants.

Proposition 203, the medical-marijuana ballot initiative sponsored by the national Marijuana Policy Project, passed only narrowly -- by about 4,400 votes statewide. Since then, prohibitionist leaders, including Yavapai County Attorney Sheila Polk and Republican state Senator Kimberly Yee of Phoenix, have worked actively to undermine it.

Credibility in a research project like this, therefore, is key. A university setting adds prominence to scientific studies.

Research into whether marijuana is an effective treatment for PTSD is minimal, a fact noted by state Department of Health Services Director Will Humble in December, when he rejected a petition to add PTSD to the list of qualifying ailments for the state's roughly 50,000 medical-marijuana patients. Previous studies involved only a handful of patients. A study by New Mexico researchers, published in January, later changed Humble's mind, and on July 9, he agreed to allow diagnosed PTSD patients to obtain registration cards under certain conditions. But as Humble's order reveals, he still wasn't convinced that the New Mexico study had proved marijuana could do much more than temporarily relieve some symptoms.

By contrast, Sisley's study, if it comes to fruition, will be one of the most rigorous ever done on the subject. It even could lead to FDA approval of whole-plant marijuana as a treatment for PTSD.

Therefore, says MAPS president Rick Doblin, Sisley's firing may be a last-ditch attempt by right-wingers to stop medical marijuana from becoming more widely accepted in Arizona, not just under state law but under federal law, too. The increasing popularity of the plant, he says, strikes fear in the hearts of prohibitionist lawmakers.

Indeed, there's little question that Sisley, even more than the study, ticked off certain powerful people. One specific reason that the U of A axed her may have been her role, however minimal, in the April recall effort targeting Senator Yee.

In any case, Sisley and her supporters aren't taking her firing lying down. She's threatened a lawsuit. The nonprofit Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) sent a letter to the U of A calling Sisley's firing "highly suspect," and asking officials to address the "chilling" effect on academic freedom.

Following the U of A's July 28 rejection of Sisley's appeal of her firing, members of a veterans' group announced that they would show up by the hundreds at a September 25 public meeting of the Arizona Board of Regents in Flagstaff to demand that officials reinstate Sisley at one of the state's universities and provide her with necessary space and resources to conduct her study.

Meanwhile, an online petition for Sisley, started by Tucson Iraq War veteran Ricardo Pereyda, had collected about 110,000 signatures from veterans around the country by early September.

If anyone thought that booting Sisley out of her U of A position would keep her quiet, they were sorely mistaken.

 

A Phoenix U.S. Marine Corp veteran using marijuana. He says it helps with pain from a work-related injury and anxiety.
A Phoenix U.S. Marine Corp veteran using marijuana. He says it helps with pain from a work-related injury and anxiety.
Image: Ray Stern

How Sisley ended up on the radar of one of the state's most powerful Republicans, Andy Biggs, a man who helps shape how state universities are funded each year, can be traced back to a United Nations treaty from 53 years ago.

Then, the U.N. published a document called the "Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, 1961," signed by various member nations, including the United States, and amended slightly in 1972. The treaty asks nations to prohibit use and possession of cannabis and other drugs and to seize and destroy plants "except for small quantities required . . . for scientific or research purposes."

Member nations that want to grow cannabis for research can do so by appointing agencies to oversee the cultivation process, says the treaty.

Under a longstanding Health and Human Services policy based on the treaty, the FDA and the U.S. Public Health Service, overseen by HHS, must approve any scientific research regarding whole-plant marijuana. Once approved, the HHS can authorize the National Institute of Drug Abuse to arrange for marijuana to be harvested for research from a 12-acre farm run by the National Center for Natural Products Research at the University of Mississippi. Projects also have to be registered with the Drug Enforcement Agency and conducted at a designated secure location.

With all of these bureaucracies involved, and a virtual monopoly on marijuana available for research, would-be research projects like Sisley's have been stifled severely. The restrictions, marijuana advocates say, have created a catch-22 in which marijuana remains in the federal code as a Schedule 1 drug, banned even for medical purposes, while studies that might prove medical benefits remain too few to convince prohibitionists in Congress that there's good reason to support changes in the law.

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After entering the medical profession as a psychiatrist, Sisley treated many PTSD patients. Some of them confided in her that they used marijuana to self-medicate. At first, Sisley actively discouraged her patients -- often veterans who had been in war -- from smoking pot. Yet so many told her that it relieved their symptoms, even when other drugs or treatments failed, she began to come around to the idea that the benefit was real. "It was better than anything I'd been able to offer them," she says.

With as many as 22 veterans per day committing suicide, according to U.S. Veterans Affairs, Sisley came to view the lack of access to legal marijuana for veterans as a type of "generational genocide."

Joe "Skip" Garcia, U of A senior vice president for health sciences.
Joe "Skip" Garcia, U of A senior vice president for health sciences.
Image: University of Arizona

While researching the subject, she stumbled onto MAPS. Founded in 1986 by Rick Doblin, a Boston resident with a doctorate in public policy from Harvard University, the nonprofit organization's first focus was on MDMA, known as ecstasy, and its use in psychological treatment. With a staff of scientists and lobbyists to help with the tricky legal aspects, MAPS also conducted research with LSD and psilocybin, the active ingredient in "magic" mushrooms. For the past 22 years, the nonprofit group's tried to squeeze the federal government to obtain marijuana legally for a research project.

With her strong interest in testing pot's effectiveness on PTSD, plus her location in Arizona, which was about to legalize the drug for medical purposes, Sisley and MAPS teamed up to create the 61-page scientific protocol that serves as a template for the research.

The plan is to study 50 veterans with PTSD who haven't responded well to other treatment. They would smoke and vaporize up to two joints' worth of marijuana every day, administered at first in clinical settings following rigorous instructions on using the pot, followed by a month of video-recorded, self-administered home use.

Randomly, the veterans would receive several strains of marijuana with differing levels of THC (the plant's psychoactive chemical ingredient), including one placebo strain with no THC, a fairly strong strain with 12 percent THC, and a strain with 6 percent THC and 6 percent of another chemical in marijuana plants believed to be helpful, called cannabidiol. The veterans would be monitored using the home videos, and there would be a strict rule about returning unused marijuana, a mandatory two-week cessation period, 12 months of follow-up, and frequent drug screenings. In the second stage of the study, assuming positive benefits are revealed in the first, researchers would skip the placebo and measure the health effects of three strains with THC and cannabidiol. MAPS submitted an early version of the protocol to the FDA and, on November 17, five days after Arizona's Prop 203 was declared victorious, received initial approval to continue the work.

While Sisley and MAPS worked to get their project approved by federal authorities, a few key Republicans tried to hamstring the new voter-approved medical-marijuana law. GOP state Representative John Kavanagh introduced a short-lived bill to put the law back on the ballot, even though polls showed more Arizonans than ever supported it. Kimberly Yee, once a cabinet member for education under former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, sponsored a couple of bills that went nowhere, including one that would've allowed police to destroy any marijuana they seized, even if it was confiscated illegally from card-holding patients, and another that would've permitted the DHS to revoke -- immediately, and without appeal -- the business license of any dispensary that sold marijuana in packaging that might appeal to children.

In April 2012, Governor Jan Brewer signed a bill sponsored by former Republican state Representative Amanda Reeve that banned medical-marijuana patients from using or possessing the plant on college campuses. Reeve, now a Phoenix lawyer, says the Arizona Prosecuting Attorneys' Advisory Council originally asked for the law. She says it was necessary to ensure compliance with the federal ban on marijuana and to make sure that two-thirds of a billion dollars of federal funds for state colleges and universities wasn't put in jeopardy.

U of A officials didn't ask for an exemption for research at the time -- though Sisley was worried how the bill would affect the PTSD study, Reeve recalls.

The law, which had bipartisan support, chilled plans for research like Sisley's to occur on any higher-education campus in Arizona.

 

State Senator Kimberly Yee, R-Phoenix
State Senator Kimberly Yee, R-Phoenix
Image: Ray Stern

Sue Sisley realized that she needed to lobby even harder if her project ever was to get off the ground. She filed paperwork to form a political-action committee called Americans for Scientific Freedom and sought lawmakers and supporters friendly to her research ideas.

Then, in early 2013, Kimberly Yee sponsored legislation pushed by the U of A and the Maricopa County Medical Society for a research exemption to the campus ban. The successful effort made it seem like the U of A was fully prepared to host a marijuana study on one of its several campuses -- and that Yee might have mellowed on the marijuana issue, for research purposes anyway.

One aspect of the new legislation that assauged Yee was that that no state funds would be used for pot research, she was told by proponents of the bill.

"It wasn't me who promised her," Sisley says, blaming it on U of A liaison Tim Bee (a former Republican state Senate president) and former Flagstaff Mayor Sara Presler, then-head of the county medical society. "[The society] made a huge mistake in hiring [Presler] as our executive director . . . She made all kinds of unauthorized statements."

When asked about Sisley's allegation that she flubbed the negotiations on the bill, Presler would only comment that she quit her job at the society last November 1.

Governor Brewer signed the bill into law. But Sisley wasn't betting on detente. Last December, she donated $5,000 to her PAC, hoping to use it to support political candidates who supported her research and to target those who didn't. No one she approached wanted to accept donations for the pot-oriented PAC, she says. Bee also complained to her about the PAC, she says. In February, Sisley refunded the five grand back to herself and abandoned the effort.

About the same time, Republican state Representative Ethan Orr of Tucson introduced a bill that would've helped Sisley tremendously. It authorized the state's medical-marijuana fund ($9 million and growing), collected by the state DHS in patient and dispensary certification fees, to be used for marijuana research.

"I wasn't funding Sue Sisley. I was funding research," Orr says, adding that dispensary-industry representatives first approached him about sponsoring the bill. "We have a fund building up, but we're unable to use it."

Arizona State Senator Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert
Arizona State Senator Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert
Image: Arizona State Legislature

The 2010 Medical Marijuana Act calls for the state DHS director to administer the fund. Will Humble, director since the law passed, won't authorize spending directly on marijuana research, even though he's paid the U of A $200,000 from the fund to cull results from other studies on medical pot. The fund's also been used to pay legal expenses for lawsuits the DHS has had to fight over medical marijuana, and another $1.2 million went to a program to catch recommendation-writing doctors who don't follow state rules. "If I were to spend the fund on primary research, there's a decent chance I'd get sued for doing so," Humble says.

In addition to biomedical research, Orr's bill would've allowed the fund to be used for programs to discourage marijuana use among young people and among the population in general. Democrats and Republicans jumped on the bill, and it passed the House 52-5, meeting the necessary two-thirds majority for changes to the voter-approved marijuana law, per 1995's Voter Protection Act.

After the bill moved to the State Senate, Senator Biggs, a Republican marijuana prohibitionist from Gilbert, assigned it on March 11 to the Senate Education Committee, chaired by Yee. She sat on it, refusing to bring it up for vote by other committee members until a March 20 expiration date.

"This was about a promise," Yee states, referring to the negotiations over the 2013 campus-exemption law. "They said they would not come back for any state dollars." Yee had another motive: She and other prohibitionists would prefer to use state money for anti-marijuana propaganda that counters a plan by the Marijuana Policy Project to put a legalization measure on the ballot in Arizona in 2016.

As Yee blocked the Senate from considering whether to fund research like Sisley's, the U.S. government announced on March 14 that MAPS and Sisley could obtain federally legal marijuana for their project.

Suddenly, Yee looked like Enemy No. 1 to marijuana advocates here and nationally.

Veterans, including some of Sisley's patients and contacts, began talking about her recall. Meanwhile, Biggs, apparently also unhappy with Orr's bill, tried to slip an amendment into a budget bill in late March to exclude any state money for marijuana research. Sisley distributed a photo of the amendment to supporters, who helped persuade Biggs to ditch it. A vet's group that included some of Sisley's would-be patients lit up Yee's phones for a few days -- Sisley says she had nothing to do with the blitz.

Veterans and cannabis advocates prepared for an April 2 rally targeting Yee at the Capitol. MAPS published a press release a day ahead of the event to help drum up support, listing Sisley as a publicity contact and saying she was "frustrated" with Yee. Sisley says she never wanted to be a contact for the recall; MAPS later removed her name from an online version of the release.

On the day of the rally, Sisley joined several dozen marijuana supporters in the state Capitol's Wesley Bolin Plaza but didn't make a speech or hold a sign.

Demonstrators chanted, "Hey, ho, Yee must go!" Some held signs saying "Shame on Yee!" and "Allow PTSD Research."

As news broke of the rally and a Yee recall (often mentioning Sisley prominently), Biggs took notice. He phoned the U of A's legislative liaison, former Tucson lawmaker Bee, to complain specifically that "Dr. Sisley seemed to be lobbying too aggressively and inappropriately," Biggs told the New York Times for an August 9 article. "Tim said he would call back after he found out more . . . And then he did and told me, 'This will not be a problem going forward.'"

On April 4, Sisley says, U of A executive Skip Garcia asked her to pull together a report detailing all her political activity. Garcia told her that Biggs had complained and that U of A President Ann Weaver Hart was concerned, she says.

The recall movement fizzled a couple of weeks later after Yee and her lawyer negotiated with the angry vets and agreed not to hold back medical research. Two months later, the university told Sisley that her services no longer were required.

 

Tim Bee, legislative liaison for the U of A, fled from a reporter last month when asked to clarify quotes attributed to him by State Senator Andy Biggs.
Tim Bee, legislative liaison for the U of A, fled from a reporter last month when asked to clarify quotes attributed to him by State Senator Andy Biggs.
Image: Ray Stern

In the aftermath of the late-June news that Sisley was fired, U of A officials refuted her claims of political retribution.

"I can say unequivocally we were under no pressure to terminate any employee," says university spokesman Chris Sigurdson.

That said, when the New York Times article was published, it was clear that the university did receive political pressure -- from Biggs. He'd complained about a single employee and, therefore, must have expected some kind of action. Biggs declined to comment for this article.

Mike Philipsen, state Senate majority spokesman, says Times writer Serge Kovaleski "skipped over some context" that would have made Bee's reply to Biggs sound less ominous.

"Mr. Bee and the university wanted to make sure we understood that their employees were made aware of policies and procedures established by the Board of Regents and the U of A concerning lobbying," Philipsen wrote in an e-mail. Without this context, "the conversations could be interpreted as something heavy-handed, when they weren't." Bee refused to confirm or deny whether Biggs had quoted him accurately. Asked again about his conversation with Biggs about Sisley at a conference in Phoenix last month, Bee fled from a New Times reporter.

Neither Garcia's office nor the U of A's public-relations department would acknowledge that Garcia called to chat with Sisley on April 4. However, at New Times' request, Sisley went through her personal phone records after recalling that Garcia's assistant, Rebecca Nunn, had called her cell number on April 4 to ask if she had time to talk to Garcia -- the records confirmed the phone call at 4:51 p.m. After Nunn's call, she talked to Garcia on her office phone to save her cell minutes, she says.

Sigurdson wouldn't talk directly about Sisley, but he says the university may receive general complaints about the lobbying of employees from time to time and "we ask [the employees] not to talk to legislators on behalf of the University of Arizona." No one's alleging that Sisley did that, though.

Sigurdson points out that the U of A "championed" the 2013 law that exempts research from the ban on medical marijuana on college campuses and that the school still wants the MAPS study. The U of A went so far as to suggest a new principal investigator for the PTSD study, Dr. Francisco Moreno, who's worked with MAPS previously regarding psilocybin.

"We plan to be doing that [PTSD] research," Sigurdson says.

It's unclear how much credit the U of A should get for closing a loophole in the 2012 law it supported. The university won't be doing this research, either, not since MAPS rejected the U of A's offer promptly -- preferring to stick with the woman who fought tirelessly for the past four years to make the study happen.

The university's attempt to move forward with the study using anybody but Sisley is suspicious, particularly when the it's claiming it has nothing against her and that canceling her position was just part of a greater restructuring.

The state DHS says it had no problem with Sisley's continuing in her part-time job helping to administer the physician-education grant. The university, only after telling Sisley her contract wouldn't be renewed, sent an official notice to the DHS to terminate its part in the grant, funded at $300,000 annually for two more years. The unexpected canceling of the grant at the U of A caused the cancellation of 100 appointments with Arizona physicians. New Times also asked Sigurdson when the U of A made the "strategic decision" in the telemedicine department that contributed to Sisley's firing, which Garcia mentioned in his July 9 letter to Sisley. Sigurdson replied that a Flagstaff doctor was recruited and hired for the program in mid-April -- in other words, a couple of weeks after Biggs complained to Bee about Sisley.

No doubt, the planned research by Sisley and MAPS frayed many nerves. Veterans who plan to descend on the Board of Regents meeting later this month shouldn't expect too much. Regents chair Mark Killian, a former Republican state lawmaker from Mesa, tells New Times he personally doesn't believe this sort of research should be conducted on any of Arizona's college campuses.

"I told [Sisley] that there's so much opposition to the whole concept -- and maybe it's just perception, but it's there -- it ought to be done in a hospital clinic setting," Killian says. "That way, no one could say it's a bunch of wild people smoking marijuana on campus."

Killian says Sisley's a "great lady" and that he knows she wants to help veterans. But he insists that conducting the study at the U of A "doesn't pass the smell test." Fitting of his arch-conservative roots, he adds, "There's so much weird stuff going on in Colorado. I think it's tainted the whole issue."

 

Jared Martin
Jared Martin
Image: Ray Stern

The Battle of Nasiriyah was one of the most infamous of the Iraq war. It began when Iraqi fighters ambushed a convoy of Army soldiers. Eleven were killed in a vicious firefight, including Army Specialist Lori Piestewa, honored in death by former Governor Janet Napolitano when she ordered the name of Squaw Peak changed to Piestewa Peak.

Jared Martin, 37, a handyman from Mesa, was a member of a U.S. Marines battalion sent to help with the rescue of the ambush survivors. For about three hours, he recounts, an Air Force A-10 Warthog strafed the unit repeatedly.

Rounds exploded all around from the 60-millimeter cannon of the A-10. One of Martin's friends was killed, and then a burst of shrapnel blew into his right side. Six surgeries were required to extract about 20 pieces of metal.

"[The unit] lost 18 Marines in six hours," Martin says grimly.

He went back to Iraq for a second deployment after healing and getting promoted to sergeant. When he finally returned home after four years of active service, he was a different person.

"I don't find much peace," he says. Diagnosed with PTSD in 2008, Martin's tried numerous drugs and techniques to keep his racing mind under control. He has bad dreams. He'd wake up sharply at 3 a.m., alert to sounds in his neighborhood. He had no tolerance for the annoying behavior of others.

"I wanted to choke everybody," he says. "The people I'm around are safer when I'm high." Martin smokes small amounts of marijuana through the day to take off the edge. Sometimes he eats infused cookies or other edibles. The more potent the strain, the better.

Will Humble, director of the state Department of Health Services
Will Humble, director of the state Department of Health Services
Image: Ray Stern

He knows it's helping, he says.

He's one of thousands of veterans in Arizona who could benefit from the planned PTSD study. After all, many of them already use marijuana -- in some cases legally, under state law -- so it makes sense to study the effects.

Martin's qualified to use marijuana in Arizona because of chronic pain from his shrapnel wound, but he and others may soon be able to qualify from PTSD, too. Starting in January, because of the July decision by the state, PTSD patients could obtain certification to buy and possess medical marijuana.

The change in the law isn't definite, though, because of a new challenge to PTSD qualification. The Arizona Cannabis Nurses Association, which filed a lawsuit against the DHS on September 1, takes issue with rules Director Humble attached to his decision -- for instance, a patient must have first sought conventional treatment for a condition before obtaining a marijuana recommendation. The lawsuit could result in a court ruling that forces the DHS either to qualify PTSD patients with fewer rules or to withdraw the July decision.

But little question remains that thousands of PTSD patients in Arizona are, or probably will be, doing research on themselves.

Meaning the need for true scientific research on the subject is more urgent than ever.

 

Dr. Sisley conducts thousands of virtual patient consultations each year at the Arizona Telemedicine Program's offices at the U of A's downtown Phoenix campus but has been told to leave.
Dr. Sisley conducts thousands of virtual patient consultations each year at the Arizona Telemedicine Program's offices at the U of A's downtown Phoenix campus but has been told to leave.
Image: Evie Carpenter

A current lack of funding for the PTSD and pot study, which could cost up to $1.2 million for the first two stages, isn't a big problem, says Doblin, the MAPS president. The nonprofit group has a fundraising effort in progress -- it's raised only about $11,000 so far, but money should pour in once the issue of a location for the study is nailed down, he says.

But Sisley's employment situation in Arizona, along with the search for a credible home for the PTSD study, still is in flux.

As of press time, Arizona State University President Michael Crow still hadn't ruled out inviting Sisley and MAPS to conduct the study on one of ASU's sprawling campuses. Sisley's also talked to the University of Colorado about hosting the study, but she'd like it to remain in Arizona. Besides the many volunteer programs in which Sisley engages, she's medical director for a local dispensary -- she donates her salary to charity to avoid any perception of a conflict of interest.

Sisley says she's looking forward to plunging ahead on the study that's taken up much of the past four years of her life.

"Veterans are suffering with symptoms so severe," she says, "that they're taking their lives by the droves every day."

Got a tip? Send it to: Ray Stern.

Follow Valley Fever on Twitter at @ValleyFeverPHX. Follow Ray Stern on Twitter at @RayStern.


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