Marijuana

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

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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.

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.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.