Marijuana

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

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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.

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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.